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Traumatized by Three Years at Rikers Without Charge, Ex-Teen Prisoner Kalief Browder Commits Suicide

A young man who was imprisoned at Rikers has committed suicide.

A young man imprisoned for three years at Rikers Island jail in New York without charge has committed suicide. Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old high school sophomore when he was detained on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Browder never pleaded guilty and was never convicted. He maintained his innocence and requested a trial, but was only offered plea deals while the trial was repeatedly delayed. After enduring nearly 800 days in solitary confinement and abuses from guards, Browder was only released when the case was dismissed. Browder died Saturday at his home in the Bronx. He was 22 years old. We are joined by Jennifer Gonnerman, a staff reporter for The New Yorker who was the first to report Kalief’s suicide. She originally recounted Kalief Browder’s story last year in her article, “Before the Law: A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life,” and later published exclusive surveillance footage of him being beaten by guards and fellow prisoners.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida”, “A Woman is Missing”, Holly Near and the late Ronnie Gilbert. Ronnie died on Saturday in Mill Valley, California. She was 88 years old. She cofounded the Weavers in the 1940’s with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman. The Weavers helped popularize folk music and bring it’s message of social change to the world. The folk singer Arlo Guthrie said “she was one fourth of the weavers, which in and of itself would have qualified her with a badge of courage but she also continued throughout her life to stand as a beacon for anyone hoping to make the world a little more equal and normal for those too often told to stay on the fringes of society.” This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. A perfect segue into a very tragic end to our show. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with tragic news that Kalief Browder ha committed suicide. He was a young New York student who spent three years in Rikers Island jail without being convicted of a crime. On Saturday, Kalief took his own life at his home in the Bronx. He was 22 years old. In 2010, when he was just 16 years old he was sent to Rikers Island without trial on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Earlier this year, The New Yorker obtained explosive video showing the violence to which Kalief was subjected to there. Surveillance camera footage shows him being abused on two separate occasions. In one clip from 2012, the teenager is seen inside Rikers’ Central Punitive Segregation Unit, better known as the Bing. As a guard escorts Browder to the showers, Kalief appears to speak, and then the guard suddenly violently hurls him to the floor, although he’s already handcuffed. In a separate video clip from 2010, Kalief is attacked by almost a dozen other teenage inmates after he punches a gang member who spat in his face. The other inmates pile onto Kalief and pummel him until guards finally intervene. Kalief’s case led to calls for reforming New York’s criminal justice system.

AMY GOODMAN: On the night of his arrest, years ago, Kalief Browder was walking home from a party with his friends in the Bronx, May 15, 2010, when he was stopped by police based on a tip that he had robbed someone weeks earlier. He told Huff Post Live what happened next.

KALIEF BROWDER: They had searched me and the guy actually said – at first he said I robbed him and I didn’t have anything on me, and that’s when –

MARK LAMONT HILL: You say nothing, you mean no weapon and none of his property.

KALIEF BROWDER: No weapon, no money, anything he said that I allegedly robbed him for. So the guy actually changed up his story and said that I actually tried to rob him. But then another police officer came and said that I robbed him two weeks prior. They said, we’re going to take you to the precinct and most likely we are going to let you go home. And then I never went home.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right, Kalief Browder did not return home for 33 months, almost three years, even though he was never tried or convicted. For nearly 800 days of that time, he was held in solitary confinement. He maintained his innocence, requested a trial, but was only offered plea deals while the trial was repeatedly delayed. Near the end of his time in jail, the judge offered to sentence him to time served if he entered a guilty plea, and told him he could face 15 years in prison if he was convicted. He refused to accept the plea deal, was only released when the case was dismissed. We’re joined once again by Jennifer Gonnerman, reporter, author, contributing editor at New Yorker magazine. She was the first to report Kalief’s suicide in her obituary for The New Yorker on Sunday. She first recounted Kalief Browder’s story last year in her article, “Before the Law: A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life.” Welcome back to Democracy Now! Is it fair to say that the courts and the prison system actually took his life?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I don’t know what was going through Kalief’s mind in those last few minutes, but it is without a doubt that he was completely traumatized by those three years that you talked about when he was trapped on Rikers Island, despite never having been convicted of a crime, brutalized by officers and fellow inmates alike, as your viewers saw in that video footage that you guys showed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now he had attempted suicide while in jail numerous times as well, and after coming out. Could you talk about that whole experience and process, and what he told you about that?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Certainly. He spent about two years in solitary confinement on Rikers Island and attempted to end his life several times while he was there. And described some of those instances for me. And I wrote about some of it in The New Yorker. And then, after he was released, he was released in 2013, several months later he again made another very serious suicide attempt and spent about a week in a psychiatric hospital. And yet, he tried every day to beat back the nightmares and transcend what he had lived through and make up for all of this lost time. He was – in recent months he was enrolled at Bronx Community College and he was doing well. I spoke to somebody there yesterday. He had a 3.5 GPA for this semester, which is extraordinary. I mean, he lost his junior year and his senior year of high school while he was locked up. So every day he was grappling with sort of trying to move past what he had endured. But, I guess trauma was too much.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Kalief Browder in his own words. In this December 2013 interview with Huff Post Live’s Mark Lamont Hill, Browder talked about his suicide attempts at Rikers and his efforts to get psychiatric help.

KALIEF BROWDER: I would say I commited suicide about five or six times.

MARK LAMONT HILL: OK, you attempted suicide five to six times.


MARK LAMONT HILL: All while still in prison?



KALIEF BROWDER: I tried to resort to telling the correction officers that I wanted to see a psychiatrist or counselor, something. I was telling them I needed mental help because I wasn’t feeling right. All the stress from my case, everything was just getting to me and I just couldn’t take it, and I just needed somebody to talk to. I needed to just – I just needed to be – I just needed to talk and to be stress-free. But the correction officers, they didn’t want to hear me out. Nobody wanted to listen.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Kalief Browder. Now, again, he went to jail when he was 16 years old. Never was tried. He was – the judge said he could get out if he just pled out, and he said, no, I’m not guilty.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: And that moment actually happened – he had been locked up for over 2.5 years at that moment. So he had gone through all of this incredible trauma and was given a chance to walk out the door and almost anybody would take that opportunity. Just to get home. He refused. He said, I did nothing wrong. And he just wanted that trial.

AMY GOODMAN: He hung himself on Saturday?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: If there’s any positive sense of – that can come out of this, the reforms that have resulted, not only from his experience, but from your chronicling of his experience, could you talk about what the city of New York has tried to do in recent months to reform, especially, how it handles juveniles in its jail system?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: There has been a number of reforms or attempts at reforms in recent months. At the end of last year, the mayor eliminated solitary confinement for juvenile offenders on Rikers Island –

AMY GOODMAN: Because of Kalief?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I think that was part of it. That wasn’t the only contributor factor. I mean the New York Times has been doing very aggressive coverage about the outrages on Rikers Island. But Mayor Bill de Blasio did cite Kalief’s case a couple months ago when he talked about a new initiative to try to speed up court cases, especially in the Bronx, but across the city. And that, sort of, excessive court delays that have been going on, that is part of the reason he spent so much time in jail there. Trying to address that. Now, whether these reforms are going to lead to lasting change, I don’t know. We can only, sort of, hope that, you know, that his death is not in vain and that real systematic change happens.

AMY GOODMAN: As we just briefly said what happened him in jail, aside from just being jailed at all, these videos that came out that we had you on for when they came out, very unusual to get a video from inside, a guard taking him down, the other prisoners beating him up.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I mean It almost defies belief. He had told me from the first moment I met him, stories about being abused on Rikers Island. And I never doubted him for a moment, but I think as an outsider, it’s almost impossible to believe what he lived through. And when you see it on the videos – I mean it was disturbing to watch those videos several months ago when we put them online, but to watch them now in the wake of what happened, I mean, it’s almost – it’s just unbelievable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you reviewed the videos with him before deciding whether to publish them or post them or not.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about his reactions to seeing or reliving it through the video as well, what happened to him?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: From the first moment I met him, he said, Jen, you have to get that video from September 23, 2012 when this officer, sort of, threw me to the ground and assaulted me. And I thought, how am I going to get that video? And then I thought, how does he know the exact date? And he remembered – he had an incredible recall for details and dates and for what had happened him. And he knew that this assault had happened right on camera. And I sat next to him and he watched it a few months ago. On the one hand, it’s like incredibly disturbing to watch, and on the other hand, he was gratified that finally people were going to know exactly what happened to him. And it was just, the whole thing is just so disturbing. It’s almost beyond words.

AMY GOODMAN: Was he suing the New York City system?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: He has been for almost two years, had a lawsuit against New York City, against the Department of Corrections, the district attorney for his case, hoping to get some justice. And like his criminal case, his civil case has been dragging on and on. And he’s been through many days of depositions, which essentially means sitting in a room with city lawyers and being grilled about exactly what happened, including being grilled about his suicide attempts on Rikers Island.

AMY GOODMAN: So he is survived by his mom. Could you talk about his family? You spent this weekend, a number of hours there.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: His family is very –

AMY GOODMAN: His mother is who found him.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right. His family is very private and didn’t want to be public or talk publicly about what happened. But, as you can imagine, appeared to me completely devastated and confused and angry, as you would imagine, by this tragedy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And was he under treatment for depression or was he on – had prescription drugs as a result of his numerous suicide attempts?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Yeah, no, he was getting some treatment and was on medication at the time and had been for many months.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Gonnerman, your work in introducing the world to Kalief is so important and I’m so sad that we have lost him now at the age of 22. Jennifer Gonnerman is staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. She was the first to report Kalief Browder’s suicide in her obituary for him in The New Yorker on Sunday. She previously recounted Kalief’s story in the article headlined, “Before the Law: A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life.” We will link to that story. That does it for our broadcast.

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