Kalief Browder, who as a teenager was held in New York City's infamous Rikers Island jail for three years without trial and became a symbol of the fight against the incarceration of adolescents with adult inmates, has committed suicide.
A Bronx native, Browder was only 16 at the time of his arrest in 2010 on robbery charges. The teenager proclaimed his innocence, but his family could not afford the $10,000 bail set for his release on robbery charges, which were later dismissed. He was released three years later after his case was dismissed.
Browder, now 22, hanged himself on Saturday, according to the New Yorker, which reported on his case in October.
In a phone call on June 5, a day before he died, Browder told his mother, "Ma, I can't take it anymore," the magazine reported.
Even after his release, Browder was having a tough time coping with his ordeal at Rikers. "I'm messed up,” he told the magazine last year. “I know I might see money from this case, but that's not going to help me mentally." Browder's lawyer Paul Prestia told local TV news station Pix 11 that his client's lawsuit against New York City for false arrest, malicious prosecution and lack of a speedy trial would continue despite his death.
Browder spent more than 400 days in solitary confinement at Rikers and suffered beatings at the hands of guards as well as fellow inmates, the magazine reported. Mental health issues dogged Browder after his release, and he reportedly tried to hang himself in November of 2013, six months after he was released. He was hospitalized in psychiatric wards at both St. Barnabas as well as Harlem Hospital, where in January 2015, a reporter who visited Browder described him as "gaunt, restless and deeply paranoid."
Rikers Island has been widely criticized for its treatment of inmates. In August of 2014, the Justice Department found that the correctional facility routinely violated the rights of its teen inmates and criticized the institution’s "deep-seated culture of violence."
Even after the Justice Department report, conditions at Rikers did not improve. Data collected in January 2015 indicated that use of force by guards against inmates reached an all-time high in 2014, even as the inmate population had declined.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City vowed to improve conditions at Rikers, New York City's largest jail complex. The city's jail oversight board voted unanimously in January to create a series of new rules, including a ban on solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has also pushed the state legislature to end the practice of automatically prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. New York and North Carolina are the only two states to do so.
Browder had spoken out about his life behind bars alongside older, tougher inmates. In an interview with ABC News in November 2013, shortly after his release, he said, "It's very hard when you are dealing with dudes that are big and have weapons and shanks and there are gangs. You know if you... don't give them what they want you know they are going to jump you. And it's very scary."
In response to questions raised by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, the U.S. government said in 2011 that it does not engage in the "systematic use of solitary confinement.” But human rights groups have pointed out that the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. is rising significantly. The number of inmates held in “restricted housing” rose from 57,591 in 1995 to 81,622 in 2005, the most recent figures available, according to testimony by the head of the Vera Institute of Justice before the U.S. Congress last year.
In March, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, said that he has been trying to visit U.S. inmates held in solitary confinement for more than two years. "Solitary confinement seems to be a permanent feature at both the pre-trial level and post-conviction," he told reporters at a press conference. Méndez issued a report in 2013 stating that prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 consecutive days constitutes torture.
Al Jazeera with wire services