In 2010, then 16-year-old Kalief Browder was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. The following day, Browder maintained his innocence, but as his family was unable to pay his $3,000 bail, he was sent to Rikers Island on New York’s East River.
Browder spent three years at the city’s main jail complex on a $10,000 bail. He told the New Yorker in a October 2014 interview that while there, he encountered beatings from officers and inmates, spent hundreds of days in solitary confinement and had attempted suicide more than once.
He was released from Rikers in 2013, but the pain and emotional toll he endured while locked up proved too difficult to bear. Browder committed suicide on Saturday at age 22, two years after his release.
New Yorker reporter Jennifer Gonnerman, who profiled Browder last year, visited his family this past weekend. She wrote:
That evening, in a room packed with family members, [Browder’s lawyer, Paul V.] Prestia said, “This case is bigger than Michael Brown!” In that case, in which a police officer shot Brown, an unarmed teen-ager, in Ferguson, Missouri, Prestia recalled that there were conflicting stories about what happened. And the incident took, he said, “one minute in time.” In the case of Kalief Browder, he said, “When you go over the three years that he spent [in jail] and all the horrific details he endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teen-ager in New York City. He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another country. It was right here!”
During his time at Rikers, Browder refused, on several occasions, to plead guilty in exchange for less jail time — he would await a trial.
But Browder never got his day in court. The man who had accused him of stealing a backpack years before had returned to Mexico, and refused to come back to testify. Without a complainant, there was no case. And without a case, there would be no lawful declaration of Browder’s innocence.