Kalief, Everything is Broken

“I was broken in body, soul and spirit.”
–Frederick Douglass on being conditioned into a slave. The Narrative of Life of Frederick Douglass

They broke him. His name is Kalief Browder. The teenager who defended his innocence of stealing a backpack. Browder wasn’t going to cop a plea for something he didn’t do. His integrity wouldn’t allow it, so he spent over three years of his adolescent life in Riker’s Island without a trial to have the case thrown out. Most of Browder’s time was spent in solitude. When he wasn’t in solitude his safety was in jeopardy from the guards, the inmates and himself (his first attempt of suicide was in Rikers). Sadly, earlier this month Browder succeeded in committing suicide.

I’ve written about suicide before, however not published in the context of the legal system, but there is something to be said about people who are conditioned to self-destruct and not be provided with adequate mental health care. Browder’s tragedy could have been avoided, but the negligence of government agencies and a “deep-seated culture of violence” directed at adolescents at Rikers Island went unchecked for a very long time. The “Missing Black Men” analysis came to mind, but the study features black males from ages 25-42. Browder’s age cohort is the beginning of the disparity of presence of black men who are either dead or behind bars.

I can’t help but think of why the prison system is called “modern day slavery”. The shackles are now cuffs and there is a very fine line between the overseer and the correction officer (don’t call them guards—they hate it), rapper and educator KRS-1 can fill you in more about this.

Kalief Browder
Kalief Browder by Zach Gross

Frederick Douglass, eloquently illustrates the cruel reality slavery in his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass notes that due to the “horrifying” physical abuse, some slaves chose suicide as opposed to being punished because “to be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other with immutable certainty.”

In her autobiography, Angela Davis mentions the impact prison conditions had on inmates. Former Soledad (Spanish for solitude) inmate, Josef, spent most of his prison term in solitary confinement. After his release, “he still bore the stamp of Soledad. He still preferred solitude. For hours and often days he would stay on the sunporch…reading, thinking, alone.”

Although Browder went to Bronx Community College (BCC) and he thrived (GPA 3.5) the residual effects of Rikers lingered. Douglass went from a man to a slave, and a slave to a man and had his sense of manhood revived (from his fight with master Covey—which he won). BCC couldn’t revive Browder. Rikers got the best of him.

Rikers Island is under a lot of scrutiny and currently going through reforms. In his open letter, Grammy and Oscar winner, John Legend, speaks of the broken legal system, including Rikers Island, which broke Kalief Browder, which left many–especially his mother, Venida Browder—with a broken heart.

**While I was writing this, a college professor sat next to me at one of my favorite tea spots and said that we focus on the individual (Kalief Browder) and not the problem (the entire legal system) and because of this, very little will change. Part of me wants him to be wrong, but the other part…

Today, Monday, June 22, 2015, the administration of Mayor Bill De Blasio committed to reforms “designed to comprehensively address systemic deficiencies that have plagued the jail system on Rikers for years,” according to the filing by the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. Solitary confinement also ended for 16- and 17-year-olds at Rikers in last December under correction commissioner Joseph Ponte. This however, does not include as John Legend mentioned things that went wrong, “begins with [the] first encounter with the NYPD whose practice of targeting black teens is well documented.” 

Kalief, things are still broken.

Rest In Peace Kalief Browder and Keenan Davis

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Magnet
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

2 responses to “Kalief, Everything is Broken”

  1. This article is an eye-opening read about and stark reminder about the “un-rehabilitative” nature of correctional facilities for both the guilty and innocent. Additionally, it underscores the painstaking reality that the constructs of incarceration (at any level-juvenile, correctional, penitentiary, etc) is to fracture the mind, wither the soul, and wound the body’s will to hope. Tragedy…

  2. Well written. Gave me some insight on how jail can be compared to slavery . Mental slavery

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