Youth Jailed at Age 16 for Years with No Trial, Kills Self—Who’s Responsible?

Left: Bronx D.A. Robert T. Johnson. Right: Kalief Browder. Photo credits: Bronx District Attorney's Office / The View (screen capture) / YouTube

When Kalief Browder was wrongly arrested at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, he had not yet begun to shave. By the time he was released from Riker’s Island in New York three years later—convicted of nothing and never having gone to trial—he felt like a very old man indeed.

After his arrest, Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson and the court set a bail which Browder’s family could not meet. Browder was brought to court from Riker’s Island at least 30 times over three years, ready to assert his innocence. Each time, D.A. Johnson’s office stated that it was not yet ready to try the case. The D.A.’s office continuously requested, and was granted, a continuance.

In June 2013, after three years, with no explanation, all charges were dropped and Browder was released.

Though he had no previous history of mental illness, Kalief Browder is now known as the young man who, damaged beyond recovery by his incarceration, took his own life at 22.

Browder’s attorney told The Los Angeles Times:

“I think what caused the suicide was his incarceration and those hundreds and hundreds of nights in solitary confinement, where there were mice crawling up his sheets in that little cell… Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time… those were direct contributing factors. … That was the pain and sadness that he had to deal with every day, and I think it was too much for him.”

The case against Browder was weak. The person who accused Browder of stealing the backpack kept changing his story: The backpack was stolen two days before he first reported the theft, then he said it was two weeks earlier. There were other inconsistencies. Browder consented to a search which turned up nothing belonging to the owner of the backpack. It was the kind of case, says Browder’s attorney, that should have been instantly thrown out.

Be Labelled “Criminal” and Go Home, or Face 15 Years in Jail

Browder was threatened with a 15-year prison sentence if he went to trial and was convicted. But D.A. Johnson offered a deal: Plead guilty to the charge and leave Riker’s on the spot with a sentence of “time served.” Steadfast in proclaiming his innocence, Browder repeatedly refused the deal.

Left: Frame from prison surveillance video obtained by The New Yorker of Browder being slammed to floor by prison guard. Right: Video frame of Browder being attacked by gang members in prison. Photo credits: New Yorker (screen capture) / YouTube

Left: Frame from prison surveillance video obtained by The New Yorker of Browder being slammed to floor by prison guard. Right: Video frame of Browder being attacked by gang members in prison. Photo credits: New Yorker (screen capture) / YouTube

It was a system, Browder later contended, guaranteed to produce a high number of guilty pleas from prisoners who were in fact not guilty. He said many minors facing similar charges lacked the same determination to prove their innocence, and accepted prosecutors’ offers in order to avoid exorbitant jail time while awaiting trial for often trivial crimes.

The Catch-22 erected by the prosecutor was formidable, symmetrical, and complete: Accept the deal and go home, with a criminal record. Do not accept: stay on Riker’s Island, possibly for a very long time, and risk losing a good portion of your life if your trial goes badly, even for a minor charge.

Supporters and friends of Browder have begun demanding justice and accountability from the decision-makers. There are questions to be answered by D.A. Johnson: How is 15 years an “appropriate” punishment to threaten a teenager with for the theft of a forty dollar backpack? The legal definition of prosecutorial misconduct includes attempting to “impose a harsher than appropriate punishment.”

A Future Down the Drain

A criminal record can alter the entire course of a person’s life. Job and college applications routinely ask if one has ever been convicted of a crime. Better jobs and better schools can suddenly become out of reach for someone with a criminal record. Future job and educational choices are based on earlier ones, and futures are diminished by the baggage of being a convicted felon.

In an interview after his release, Browder told Rosie O’Donnell that if he did not fight the charges of which he knew he was innocent, he would go into young adulthood as “just another criminal.” This was apparently too much for Browder to bear. But what happened instead was, in the end, unbearable too.

And so it was that Browder spent three years on Riker’s Island, the notorious jail already cited in a report by the US Department of Justice, in August 2014, for failing to “protect adolescent inmates from harm in violation of the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

When Browder emerged, he worried that he had become no semblance of his former self. In October of 2014 he told The New Yorker:

“People tell me because I have this case against the city I’m all right.  But I’m not all right. I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that’s not going to help me mentally. I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back.”

Browder’s story is a soul-searing window into what it can be like to be a poor young Black man in America.

Left: Kalief Browder as teenager. Right: After release from Riker’s Island

Left: Kalief Browder as teenager. Right: After release from Riker’s Island

Beatings, Abuse

Riker’s Island is technically not a prison, but a jail. The vast majority of detainees are people awaiting trial who cannot afford to post bail. Except for one facility which harbors convicts serving sentences of a year or less, it is a holding pen for poor people charged with crimes but still presumed innocent. At least in theory.

In Browder’s case, bail was set first at $3,000—then later at $10,000—for the charge of stealing a backpack, far beyond the means of a poor family from the Bronx. Many families seem to face the same problem. According to research last year by the online New York journal Gothamist, at any given time there are between 400 to 800 minors incarcerated on Riker’s awaiting trial.

Fear was a constant of life on the island. When Browder was with the general prison population rather than in isolation, he was frequently beaten and abused by both prisoners and guards. Gangs terrorized and oppressed anyone who, like Browder, was not a part of them. Adult staff typically took little or no action. Guards beat him repeatedly, sometimes while he was handcuffed to the bars of a cell.

In interviews after he was released, Browder described life on Riker’s as “Hell on Earth.”

“I never knew where it [an attack] was coming from…I’ve seen people jumped, I’ve seen people cut, hit with weapons,” Browder told talk show host Marc Lamont Hill after his release.

Confused and angry at his unjust imprisonment, Browder told Hill of how some nights, still a boy, he cried himself to sleep. By the time he was released, he had missed his junior year in high school, senior year, his prom, and graduation. He was then 20 years old.

It would be easy to ascribe the reason for Browder’s ordeal to his mere inability to meet the draconian $10,000 bail. However, some reform advocates say that the real reason is a criminal justice system so rotten and corrupt it merits nothing so much as being torn down to its foundations, and rebuilt.

The video surveillance record obtained by The New Yorker shows incidents such as a prison guard slamming a handcuffed and compliant Browder to the floor, apparently for nothing more than sadistic pleasure. Browder described the incident:

“I just felt [the guard] tighten a grip around my arm… In my head, I was wondering why he tightened it so tight, like he never usually does, and that’s when he swung me and kept trying to slam me.”

Tortured by Over Two Years of Isolation

Over two years of Kalief Browder’s time at Riker’s were spent in isolation, a form of punishment in which prisoners are held in a featureless cell measuring approximately ten by twelve feet, with a toilet and sink combination, for 23 out of 24 hours each day. For one hour each day prisoners are allowed to engage in “exercise” outdoors, which consists of walking, shackled, in an enclosure which resembles a dog kennel.

Solitary confinement unit at Riker’s Island where juveniles are kept, from SolitaryWatch.org

Solitary confinement unit at Riker’s Island where juveniles are kept, from SolitaryWatch.org

Long-term isolation for high-profile prisoners awaiting trial is becoming the “new normal” in America. In the past used mostly as punishment for misbehavior while incarcerated after conviction, the practice of isolation pre-trial now receives little notice.

One post-9/11 law, which formalizes the authority of the courts to hold prisoners in isolation for long periods before their trials, is named Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). SAMs was passed on the theory that terrorist suspects might pass messages that could incite others in their network to further violence. Critics of SAMs say the practice of placing prisoners in isolation for long periods before trial compromises the accused’s ability to fight the charges against him.

Notable high-profile trials in which prisoners were held in pre-trial isolation were those of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Fahad Hashmi, and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning. Despite the charges against Browder being incomparable to theirs, he was still held, for over two years, in conditions almost exactly the same, due to the frequent use of isolation at Riker’s. It has been reported that, on average, at any given time, between a quarter and one-third of adolescent inmates on Riker’s Island are in isolation units.

A Punishment Feared by Even Hardened Prisoners

With limited reading material and little to do except stare at sterile white walls, isolation is feared above almost all else by even hardened prisoners. In 2013 the advocacy group Solitary Watch published an essay by convicted death row inmate Michael Jewell, who was sentenced to death in Texas for capital murder in 1970. Jewell wrote:

“Your perception shrinks to the dimensions of the space and sensations of confinement. Visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and even the sense of taste are dramatically deprived and constricted… Removed from the distractions and diversions of the broader context, the mind is suddenly forced to confront itself. You begin to hear yourself think. When the mind is withdrawn from the experience of ‘perceiving’ and interacting with the complex activities of the broader environment, it is forced to switch to perceptions from within itself and draw upon self-consciousness, as well as the subconscious.”

The hearing of voices in isolation is extensively documented in a medical fact sheet published by Solitary Watch, as is “losing control” of one’s “own thoughts.”

Self-mutilation has been commonly observed in experiments on animals, as well as other pathological behaviors. Dr. Stuart Grassian in “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement” wrote that “in adult rhesus monkeys even brief periods of social isolation produce compromised cognitive processing.” The effects of long-term isolation are deep and permanent.

In testimony introduced at the trial of Fahad Hashmi, who was held in isolation for two years, doctors said that “after 60 days’ solitary detention people’s mental state begins to break down and gradually develops into psychosis as the mind disintegrates.”

Razor wire fence surrounding inmate housing at Riker’s Island.

Razor wire fence surrounding inmate housing at Riker’s Island.

Fahad Hashmi at first maintained his innocence of the charge of providing material assistance to Al Qaeda, which consisted of letting a friend of a friend stay in his London flat. His guest, said prosecutors, had a suitcase full of socks and rain gear destined for Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Although he said he did not know what was in the suitcase, after two years in isolation under SAMs Hashmi finally pleaded guilty. When asked by Judge Loretta Preska if he was pleading guilty “because you are in fact guilty” Hashmi answered enthusiastically, “Praise be to God, yes!”

Attempts at suicide are common among prisoners held for long periods in isolation. Kalief Browder, with no previous history of mental problems, attempted suicide numerous times in prison. Once, for his audacity at trying to end his life, rather than being given the psychological help he had been requesting, he was beaten yet again by prison guards.

After his release, Browder enrolled at Bronx Community College, where he wrote a scholarly research paper on solitary confinement, entitled “A Closer Look at Solitary Confinement in the United States.”  Making no mention of his own experience, Browder noted that mental health issues arising from solitary confinement “often send ex-inmates right back to prison because of misbehaviors that stem from their stay in solitary confinement.”

Prosecuting the Prosecutors

Browder’s supporters have called for the identification of the guard who slammed him, and an investigation and prosecution of the assault. Some, as well, have called for the investigation and prosecution of Bronx D.A. Johnson. Paul Prestia, Browder’s attorney, notes that:

“If you took a sixteen-year-old kid and locked him in a room for twenty-three hours, your son or daughter, you’d be arrested for endangering the welfare of a child.”

Prosecutorial misconduct and malicious prosecution are two distinct but interrelated categories of offense, and the laws surrounding each are notoriously confusing. Until recently, prosecutorial immunity laws had shielded even the most egregiously mischievous of prosecutors from personal jail time. However, in 2013 important ground was broken. For the first time, a prosecutor was sentenced to jail time after withholding evidence of a man’s innocence. But it was only for 10 days.

Given the 25 years the innocent man had served, the 10-day sentence elicited howls of outrage. Nevertheless, University of Cincinnati Law School Professor Mark Godsey wrote: “What’s newsworthy and novel about today’s plea is that a prosecutor was actually punished in a meaningful way for his transgressions.”

Browder’s attorney, Prestia, charges in a lawsuit against the city that in Browder’s case, the prosecution was in fact “seeking long, undue adjournments of these cases to procure a guilty plea from plaintiff.” It bears repeating that Kalief Browder stood before the prosecutor and the court at least 30 times over three years. Each time, rather than moving that the charge be dismissed, or sending Browder home to await trial, the prosecutor sent him back to Riker’s. Did the prosecutor engage in a gambit in which he calculated that the youth would eventually confess, in no small part due to the “hell” of incarceration on Riker’s? Prestia calls this “the million-dollar question.” If there were any case whatsoever against Browder, why were all the charges dismissed?

The office of D.A. Johnson has a stated policy of not commenting on the Browder case, due to a civil suit being in progress.

How Many Kaliefs?

How many Kalief Browders are there at this moment in America? In order to take a reading, WhoWhatWhy launched a probe of the three largest juvenile jurisdictions in the US—New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

To date only Los Angeles has responded definitively. Greg Risling, Public Information Officer of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, said:

“In California, juveniles don’t have bail. A judge decides whether teens remain in Juvenile Hall or can go home pending the outcome of the case. Also we are very limited on what we can say in juvenile cases because they are minors.”

Freedom of Information Act requests have been filed with Elizabeth Scannell, who is the Freedom of Information Act officer for Cook County, Illinois (Chicago) and Laura Mello, the Freedom of Information Law officer for the Department of Corrections, City of New York. WhoWhatWhy requested a breakdown of how many minors are in jail awaiting trial for various periods of time, up to and over three years, for nonviolent crimes.

Chicago has promised fulfillment of our request by July 9, 2015. New York City has responded that it will decide, by the end of July, whether to “grant or deny your request either in whole or in part.” WhoWhatWhy will report on these requests as they are received.

In New York City, in April of this year, The New Yorker reported that about 1,500 men and women have been held in the city’s jails for over a year without being convicted of a crime. As noted previously, an estimated 400 to 800 juveniles were reported being held on Riker’s Island awaiting trial, many undoubtedly on trivial charges. This opens the possibility of dozens, if not hundreds, of Kalief Browders being held at the present time.

Washington DC is a Model

Leading the nation in sensible treatment of accused juvenile offenders is Washington, DC. DC Superior Court Judge Truman Morrison proudly noted, in an interview: “We are the only city in America, where tonight, at our jail, there is not a single man or woman who is sitting because they don’t have the money to make their money bond.”

In a comedic monologue lambasting the US practice of requiring excessive bail for suspects who pose neither a danger to the community nor a flight risk, HBO’s John Oliver noted that Washington, DC’s system results in a superior record of court appearances, and costs the taxpayer much less.

Browder’s Work

Kalief Browder was, by all accounts, and clearly in interviews, an extraordinary young man. While in jail he pursued serious reading when allowed to have books. His favorite book was “House of Bush, House of Saud” by Craig Unger. Poised and soft-spoken, despite his reluctance and discomfort at reliving the terrible years, Browder felt impelled to speak out after his release.

“This happens every day. This happens every day,” Browder said in an interview on the Marc Lamont Hill Show. “The whole point of being on this show is… I feel like this has got to stop because there’s a lot of people in there for stuff they didn’t do… they take the plea deal knowing they didn’t do it and it happens every day.”

Browder lamented on the show that, had he taken the plea bargain, as “just another criminal” no one would have listened to his story, which, he said, was the story of so many others. He told Rosie O’Donnell that he was amazed at the cavalier attitude of officials who suddenly decided that he could walk free if he accepted the plea deal, like everything was “okay.”

“But it’s not okay,” said Browder. “It’s not okay.”

The numbers would seem to support Browder’s contention. In 2011 in the Bronx, reports The New Yorker, almost 4,000 cases were settled with a guilty plea from the defendant, while only 165 felony cases went to trial.

Browder’s decision to refuse a plea-bargain deal was heroic, given the circumstances. Once out of Riker’s he tried valiantly to get on with his life, earning a 3.55 grade point average at Bronx Community College.

But he suffered from nightmares, and his mental health deteriorated. A TV that well-wishers gave him became an object of fear. The reporter who broke his story and befriended him called him just before his death and learned that Browder had thrown the TV out, because he felt it was “watching him.”

Browder knew he was not a well man.

After Browder’s suicide, in the interview with The Los Angeles Times, Browder’s attorney Paul Prestia became emotional: ” ‘He was a good friend of mine—I wasn’t just his attorney, you know?’ Prestia went silent for a few seconds, then continued: ‘He was a really good kid.’ ”

On the day he killed himself, Browder’s mother discovered her son’s body hanging by the power cord of an air conditioner.

“Kalief’s Law”

Johnson’s office would be hard-pressed to claim that they did not know what was happening to Kalief Browder, since Browder’s case file, date of arrest, documentation, and numerous suicide attempts were in front of them in dozens of court appearances. As for the effects of isolation, New York City’s own Board of Correction acknowledges, in a July 2014 report, that “continuous solitary confinement is detrimental to a person’s physical and mental health.”

Browder’s supporters have begun lobbying for a “Kalief’s Law,” which would make it a federal crime to hold minors for nonviolent crimes while they await trial, regardless of their ability to afford bail.

Presidential candidate Rand Paul has taken notice of Browder’s story, and brings it up frequently when speaking of the American justice system. Before the suicide, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Baltimore this year, Paul said:

“This young man, 16 years old—imagine how his classmates feel about American justice. Imagine how his parents feel.”

The story of Kalief Browder is deeply disturbing on almost too many levels to count. A child when he was arrested, his personality then reshaped and traumatized by an unremittingly brutal environment, he nevertheless mounted a heroic resistance to walking into adulthood as “just another criminal.” Towering before him was the power of the state, commonly viewed as a cold, faceless bureaucracy. But, say Browder’s supporters, this is not entirely true. Real people made the decisions which sealed Browder’s fate. After his suicide, a number of Browder’s supporters delivered a mock casket with Browder’s name on it to the home of D.A. Johnson.

The Browder story will not soon be forgotten by the many people who are determined to continue his work, to expose the machinations of the Leviathan which, Browder said, chews through innocent lives “every day.”

Panorama credits: Adapted from ABC 7’s Eyewitness News screen capture / Sfoskett / Wikimedia

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