ABC News(NEW YORK) — At just 22 years old, Kalief Browder had endured hell and lived to tell about it.
For three years, he had been locked up in one of the country’s toughest jails for allegedly stealing a backpack — a charge he strongly denied. While in jail, he was given a choice: Either admit to the crime, take a plea bargain and go home the same day or return to his cell and wait for a new court date.
Browder chose to go back to his cell.
“I always believed in standing up for what I felt was right and at that time I felt like that was the right thing to do, fight my case,” he told ABC News during an interview in New York City last November. “The way I looked at it if I got to stay here just to prove that I am innocent, then so be it.”
In May 2010, Browder was 16 years old when he was arrested for robbery, and when his mother Venida Browder couldn’t make his $3,000 bail, Kalief was sent to Rikers Island.
“My heart just dropped, that was my baby,” she said. “He was the youngest of my kids. You know, I had heard so many horror stories about Rikers and all I could picture was him getting hurt in there.”
Rikers is a 400-acre island in New York’s East River that holds more than 10,000 inmates.
“It’s like hell on earth,” Browder said in November. “We were beaten, stomped by the corrections officers. They hit me weapons. They just cuff me in the back and they’re just beating on me while I was in the cell. They’re just beating on me.”
Two beating incidents captured on Rikers surveillance video were obtained by New Yorker magazine, which first brought Browder’s story to light. In one video, Browder is seen being escorted to a prison shower. He appears to speak to the guard, who then is seen slamming him into a wall and then to the ground.
In the second video, Browder appears to be attacked by a group of inmates, all of them seen punching and kicking him while he’s on the ground.
Browder said he endured regular beatings, and that he was punished with starvation and solitary confinement for months at a time.
“Sometimes I went back to my cell and I cried myself to sleep because it’s like I want to go home and it’s like, they’re not letting me go home,” he said in November.
By the time Browder’s case was dismissed in June 2013, prison records show he had attempted suicide at least six times and had spent 1,110 days behind bars, more than 800 of those were in solitary. His court date was postponed more than 30 times. He was never given a trial. He was never convicted of a crime.
By then Browder had missed junior and senior year of high school, proms and high school graduation.
“It destroyed him, it destroyed him, mentally he became a wreck,” his mother Venida Browder said. “When he came home, the ghost of Rikers came with him.”
The 16-year-old boy emerged from Rikers a broken 22-year-old man.
“I lost my childhood, I lost my happiness,” Kalief said in November. “Deep down, I’m a mess because like I feel like I’m 40. I feel like I’m a grown old man.”
After he got out, he was doing better, he said. He earned his GED and was pulling a 3.56 GPA at Bronx Community College, working towards an associate’s degree. After all he had been through at Rikers, he was proud that he didn’t take a plea bargain.
“The judge told me if I plead guilty I will be released that same day, but I didn’t do it,” he said in November. “You’re not going to make me say I did something just so I can go home. The way I looked at it if I got to stay here just to prove that I am innocent, then so be it.”
The psychological trauma from jail doesn’t fade easily. Bernie Kerik, the former police and correction commissioner of New York City, who is also a convicted felon himself, said he knows what it’s like to be on the other side.
“You stick somebody in a 12 by 8 box, a metal box, for 24 hours a day with no contact with the outside world. It is mind altering,” Kerik said. “It changes your view on life, it creates enormous paranoia, anxiety.”
In the last year, Browder grew deeply depressed and deeply paranoid.
“He would constantly think about what he went through in there and then he would talk about it and then get angry and upset and frustrated,” Venida said. “And when he first came home, he would just walk the four corners of the driveway.”
Then, on June 6, two years after his release from jail, Browder hung himself with an air conditioner cord in his childhood bedroom in the Bronx.
“They damaged him so much that he felt this was the only way to escape,” Venida Browder said.
Venida wants Rikers and the district attorney’s office to be held responsible for her son’s suffering, and “to admit that it’s their fault” that Kalief is dead.
“He spent three years because of them in hell,” she said. “I will be in hell until the day I die because I found my son hanging. They say no mother should have to bury their child. Which is true. If your child is murdered, you have an immediate anger towards that person and you want that person found and pay for what they did to your child. It’s not one person. It’s a whole system that destroyed my son. And I want them all to pay.”
The district attorney declined to comment on this report. The city’s Department of Corrections declined to comment in regards to the videos of Kalief Browder, and the Department of Corrections commissioner told ABC News he was “deeply saddened” by Browder’s death.
Kelief’s case made national news and messages of outrage mixed with sympathy flooded social media. John Legend wrote an op-ed for New York Magazine entitled, “New York Failed Kalief Browder.” Lena Dunham Instagrammed his photo and called for reform. sparked a national conversation and outrage, and his story of abuse at Rikers triggered reform in the city’s criminal justice system. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said Browder’s story helped trigger reform in the city’s criminal justice system.
“It caused a lot of people to act and a lot of changes we are making at Rikers Island right now are the result of the example of Kalief Browder so I wish — I deeply wish — we hadn’t lost him, but he did not die in vain,” de Blasio said during a press conference two days after Kalief’s death.
The city has since done away with solitary confinement for 16 and 17 year olds with plans to raise the age even higher by 2016. In April, plans were announced to fix backlogs and crowded dockets in the city’s courts. It’s a change that would stop people from being held for extended periods of time without trial. Residents are also calling for a change to the cash bail system. Currently only 12 percent of defendants in New York City make bail, according to the New York Criminal Justice Agency.
But attorney Paul Prestia, who helped Browder file his civil suit against the city, says those reforms aren’t enough.
“Reform is all nice and well, and you know invoking Kalief’s name in reform is all nice and well, but admit you did something wrong here… that’s always Kalief’s message,” Prestia said. “How many young men had to go through this?”
Prestia is also asking lawmakers to clean house at Rikers. Last August, a U.S. Department of Justice report found an “alarming rate” of physical force used against adolescent inmates in Rikers and called for an overhaul of its correction department operations.
But Kerik cautions that the city against bowing to public pressure and implementing changes that could put Rikers correction officers and inmates in danger.
“You cannot let the inmates control the asylum,” he said. “If you take solitary confinement away from the correction officials, across the board, you’re going to see a major, major increase in violence… These are not 16 and 17 and 18 year old kids, they’re not your kid. It’s not my son. These are kids that come from gangs. These are kids that ran the streets. These are kids that are predatory in nature, from wherever they come from… There’s no where to put the really, really bad people. That’s going to be a problem.”
Kerik suggests that Rikers increase searches, check for weapons, and hold staff members that violate the law accountable for their actions. But these are suggestions that come too late for Kalief Browder.
“I want my baby back and he’s never going to come back,” Venida Browder said. “Every morning when I go take a shower, I still peek in his room. I left his room exactly the way he left it. I know he’s not there, but I still peek in his room.”
To those who knew him, Kalief was the kind of person who turned down a plea bargain on principle, whose story may help save others like him.
“If I would have plead guilty then my story would never have been heard,” he told ABC News in November. “Nobody would take the time to listen to me. And I’d just been another criminal.”
Watch the full story on Nightline at 12:35 a.m. ET on Thursday.
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