NEW YORK — Hundreds of mourners and activists gathered in front of a jail complex in downtown Manhattan on a humid Thursday night for a vigil to honor Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old Bronx man who committed suicide after he was held for three years at Rikers Island jail without a trial, spending more than 400 days in solitary confinement.
Clutching single white daisy stems and red carnations, black-and-white photos of Browder and signs reading, “Children do not belong in adult prisons,” members of the crowd spent several minutes chanting, "Justice for Kalief! Justice for Kalief!”
“When we put our children inside these prisons, we are subjecting them to extreme psychological trauma, rape, torture and isolation, the likes of which few adults could withstand,” Carmen Rivera, executive director of Gathering for Justice, a national advocacy group aiming to end the incarceration of minors, told the crowd from the steps of Manhattan Detention Complex. “Much of this abuse comes at the hands of those who say they’re here to protect and serve.”
In 2010, when he was 16 years old, Browder, a high school student living in the Bronx, was accused of stealing a backpack, a crime he swore he didn’t commit. But because his family could not afford to post the $10,000 bail for his release, Browder languished at Rikers for three years, beaten repeatedly by guards and other inmates and spending more than a year in solitary confinement.
Browder had tried to commit suicide at Rikers multiple times before he was finally released three years later. He reportedly made another suicide attempt in 2013, six months after he was released from jail, and was hospitalized multiple times for his anguish. Last Friday, the day before he hanged himself, he told his mother, “Ma, I can’t take it anymore,” according to The New Yorker, which first reported on Browder’s story in 2014.
“Kalief never got to have his chance,” Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother, told mourners at the vigil Thursday. “This is a time for our family to mourn what happened to him, what they did to him.”
Choking back tears, he added that his brother had professed his innocence for three years without ever finding justice. “They [the jail] just let him go as though their job was done, and they did what they needed to do,” Akeem said. “They killed another black man, that’s what they did.”
New York and North Carolina are the only two U.S. states that automatically try 16-year-olds as adults, Angelo Pinto, campaign manager for the New York-based advocacy group Raise the Age, told the crowd. That means that teenagers like Browder end up in adult jails and prisons. “Every New York state jail has a Kalief Browder,” Pinto said. “That’s the reality of the matter.”
“This man was murdered by a system that was unfair, that was unjust, that is not designed for rehabilitation but is designed for punishment and torture,” Mysonne Linen, a member of Justice League NYC, the New York-based branch of Gathering For Justice and the group that organized Thursday’s vigil, told Al Jazeera. “And we want people to see that.”
Linen, 39, knows what it’s like to feel broken by that system. Like Browder, he is a Bronx native, and in 1999 an eyewitness identified him as an armed robber, a crime he says he didn’t commit.
An aspiring rapper, the 21-year-old had just signed a record deal with Violator, the same label that represented rappers like Q-Tip, Nas and LL Cool J. Accepting a plea bargain to serve five years, Linen said, was not an option—he was determined to prove his innocence.
But the jury found Linen guilty. He served seven years of a seven- to 14-year sentence, and said he was placed in solitary confinement for a total of 60 days. The experience, Linen said, was so demoralizing that he is forever changed—once outgoing, now he is introverted, withdrawn.
“It is inhumane, it desensitizes you, it dehumanizes you,” Linen said of solitary confinement. “It’s the worst feeling that I think I have ever encountered.”
At the vigil, Lorenzo Steele, Jr, 49, from Valley Stream, New York, told Al Jazeera that as a former New York City Corrections officer working in an adolescent solitary confinement unit at Rikers, the very type of place Browder was detained, he has seen what kind of damage can be done to prisoners.
Starting in 1987, he oversaw inmates as young as 14 years old, many of whom didn’t receive the mental health treatment they needed. Ultimately, he resigned from his post in 1991. “I just couldn’t take it no more,” Steele said. Now, he runs a visual arts outreach program for students where he shares the photography he took during his tenure at Rikers in order to educate them about the prison system.
“Removing myself from that institution, I really see ... the psychological damage that it has on children—it’s just amazing.”