Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he became an all too familiar statistic: one of thousands of black youths nationwide trapped in the jail system, unable to secure bail. Last week his five-year ordeal in and out of New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex ended in suicide. Paradoxically, that made him part of a less familiar statistic: the number of black youths who take their lives every year. Both numbers speak to the multiple effects of systemic oppression on young minds.
Suicide in Browder’s demographic is more common than is often assumed. New research shows a recent rise in suicide among black children, even as suicide rates fell among other groups. Suspected risk factors include exposure to trauma and violence, a paucity of family connections and social supports in their communities and — in a sad twist on a headline we hear too much in the news — easy access to guns.
Suicide risk is elevated among people held in isolation (PDF), including many youths. Browder, who was accused of stealing a backpack and kept behind bars without ever going to trial, spent many months in solitary confinement. He joined scores of other youths who, without access to bail or decent legal assistance, are banished from human contact in conditions tantamount to torture, supposedly to maintain security.
Under public pressure, New York City officials recently announced plans to phase out solitary for younger inmates, starting with 16- and 17-year-olds and moving on to 18-to-21-year-olds by 2016. (Currently Rikers keeps in solitary about 100 people ages 19 to 21.) Though those reforms are a step forward, they won’t fix the problems that have long plagued the facility, including a lack of basic mental health services and other rehabilitative programs for young people. And they do nothing for the kids who, like Browder, have already returned to their communities, but remain deeply scarred and struggling to restore their lives.
While Browder almost beat the odds — he eventually fought his way out of Rikers, vindicated after a three-year court battle — the trauma resurfaced afterward in his emotional volatility and constant flashbacks. While we can only speculate on what ultimately triggered his suicide, we know that he was overwhelmed by the haunting memories of ferocious beatings and ritual humiliation by jail officers.
“Everything was just getting to me,” he recalled while discussing a past suicide attempt in an interview with Huffington Post Live in 2013. (He tried to hang himself on several occasions, in and outside jail.) “And I just couldn’t take it. But the correction officers, they didn’t want to hear me out. Nobody wanted to listen.” According to his family, days before his death, he faced the threat of more incarceration after another run-in with the cops.
Though it gets comparatively less attention than sensational gang shootings or drug crime, suicide remains a leading cause of death among young black men (PDF).
A sad truism underlying youth suicide risk is that a life rife with hopelessness and trauma can lead to a sense that it just isn’t worth living. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, “Among black youth, perceived racism and discrimination along with social and economic disadvantage may lead to having no hope for the future, which is a risk factor for suicide.” For the young people locked in the criminal justice system, such a calculation might seem chillingly rational.
Some scholars point to cultural factors, arguing that the way black youths are brought up and socialized may play a role. In many black youths’ social networks, they say, an emphasis on group identity, along with religious cultural practices, may provide a layer of social protection against the kind of destabilization that can precipitate suicide. But these positive communal aspects of life are continually frayed by patterns of socioeconomic disadvantage. Structural social crises are amplified through high incarceration rates and the especially brutal effects of solitary confinement on young people and those with mental health conditions.
The forces of the criminal justice system scar whole communities, too. Mass incarceration has wrought emotional devastation and social instability for the families of the imprisoned. And the loved ones of police brutality victims have described suffering deep trauma when seeking — often in vain — legal recourse.
In order for society to grapple with the moral challenge presented by the Black Lives Matter movement, we should examine the factors that, over time, can wear down a young person’s belief in his or her potential. Though still relatively rare among African-Americans, suicide and suicidal feelings mark the extreme end of a spectrum of everyday despair that often stalks marginalized youths. Those mental wounds represent the double failure of schools and other institutions to help families deal proactively with social barriers and to intervene when kids are most at risk.
A network of supportive community institutions can buffer people against falling to the depths that Browder did. Structural changes, such as addressing inequality in education systems and a lack of career-path jobs, are also crucial. Neighborhoods can build resilience to overcome trauma through social programs that enhance an individual’s sense of dignity and purpose.
Social movements might promote healing as well: Organizing to push for social protections and economic equity can transform a sense of alienation into a source of collective strength.
We can never know exactly what might keep an individual from feeling pushed over the edge, but what is certain is that our prison and jail systems — particularly solitary confinement — are the exact opposite of the kinds of communal connections that youths need to survive. With Browder’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement takes on a special resonance: as a cry for help and an assertion of existence despite the odds. What the tragic last years of Browder’s life exposed is how terrible those odds are for many young people.