In May, 2010, Kalief Browder, a sixteen-year-old high-school
sophomore, was arrested in the Bronx for allegedly stealing a backpack.
He insisted that he was innocent, but he was taken to Rikers Island, New
York City’s four-hundred-acre jail complex. Browder spent the next
three years at Rikers, awaiting trial while his case was repeatedly
delayed by the courts. In May, 2013, the case against him was dismissed.
sixteen, for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. Then he spent
more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never
happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary
confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times. Once, in
February, 2012, he ripped his bedsheet into strips, tied them together
to create a noose, and tried to hang himself from the light fixture in
Rikers, Browder attempted suicide again. This time, he tried to hang
himself at home, from a bannister, and he was taken to the psychiatric
ward at St. Barnabas Hospital, not far from his home, in the Bronx. When
I met him, in the spring of 2014, he appeared to be more stable.
about him appeared, he stopped going to classes at Bronx Community
College. During the week of Christmas, he was confined in the psych ward
at Harlem Hospital. One day after his release, he was hospitalized
again, this time back at St. Barnabas. When I visited him there on
January 9th, he did not seem like himself. He was gaunt, restless, and
deeply paranoid. He had recently thrown out his brand-new television, he
explained, “because it was watching me.”
released and sent back home. The next day, his lawyer, Paul V. Prestia,
got a call from an official at Bronx Community College. An anonymous
donor (who had likely read the New Yorker story) had offered to
pay his tuition for the semester. This happy news prompted Browder to
reënroll. For the next few months he seemed to thrive. He rode his
bicycle back and forth to school every day, he no longer got panic
attacks sitting in a classroom, and he earned better grades than he had
the prior semester.
had been telling me stories about having been abused by officers and
inmates on Rikers. The stories were disturbing, but I did not fully
appreciate what he had experienced until this past April when I obtained
surveillance footage of an officer assaulting him and of a large group
of inmates pummeling and kicking him. I sat next to Kalief while he
watched these videos for the first time. Afterward, we discussed whether
they should be published on The New Yorker’s Web site. I told him that it was his decision. He said to put them online.
talk to me for the first time, a year earlier. He wanted the public to
know what he had gone through, so that nobody else would have to endure
the same ordeals. His willingness to tell his story publicly—and his
ability to recount it with great insight—ultimately helped persuade
Mayor Bill de Blasio to try to reform the city’s court system and end
the sort of excessive delays that kept him in jail for so long.
Paul, who began talking about him on the campaign trail. Jay Z met with
Browder after watching the videos. Rosie O’Donnell invited him on “The
View” last year and recently had him over for dinner. Browder could be a
very private person, and he told almost nobody about meeting O’Donnell
or Jay Z. However, in a picture taken of him with Jay Z, who draped an arm around his shoulders, Browder looked euphoric.
Browder’s behalf against the city, noticed that Browder had put up a
couple of odd posts on Facebook. When Prestia sent him a text message,
asking what was going on, Browder insisted he was O.K. “Are you sure
everything is cool?” Prestia wrote. Browder replied: “Yea I’m alright
thanks man.” The two spoke on Wednesday, and Browder did seem fine. On
Saturday afternoon, Prestia got a call from Browder’s mother: he had
visited the family’s home in the Bronx. Fifteen relatives—aunts, uncles,
cousins—sat crammed together in the front room with his parents and
siblings. The mood was alternately depressed, angry, and confused. Two
empty bottles of Browder’s antipsychotic drug sat on a table. Was it
possible that taking the drug had caused him to commit suicide? Or could
he have stopped taking it and become suicidal as a result?
about being starved and beaten by guards on Rikers. They spoke about his
paranoia, about how he often suspected that the cops or some other
authority figures were after him. His mother explained that the night
before he told her, “Ma, I can’t take it anymore.” “Kalief, you’ve got a
lot of people in your corner,” she told him.
got home from jail, he would walk to G.E.D. prep class every day, almost
an hour each way. Another cousin remembered seeing him seated by the
kitchen each morning with his schoolwork spread out before him.
floor Next to his bed was his MacBook Air. (Rosie O’Donnell had given it
to him.) A bicycle stood by the closet. There were two holes near the
door, which he had made with his fist some months earlier.
Mustard-yellow sheets covered his bed. And, to the side of the room,
atop a jumble of clothes, there were two mustard-yellow strips that he
had evidently torn from his bedsheets.
that these torn strips of sheet were not strong enough. That afternoon,
at about 12:15 P.M., he went into another bedroom, pulled out the air
conditioner, and pushed himself out through the hole in the wall, feet
first, with a cord wrapped around his neck. His mother was the only
other person home at the time. After she heard a loud thumping noise,
she went upstairs to investigate, but couldn’t figure out what had
happened. It wasn’t until she went outside to the backyard and looked up
that she realized that her youngest child had hanged himself.
members, Prestia said, “This case is bigger than Michael Brown!” In that
case, in which a police officer shot Brown, an unarmed teen-ager, in
Ferguson, Missouri, Prestia recalled that there were conflicting stories
about what happened. And the incident took, he said, “one minute in
time.” In the case of Kalief Browder, he said, “When you go over the
three years that he spent [in jail] and all the horrific details he
endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teen-ager in New
York City. He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another
country. It was right here!”
States Attorney for the Southern District, released a report denouncing
the horrific conditions in the adolescent jail on Rikers, describing it
as a place that “seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than
any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.” Browder experienced
this firsthand during the many months he was held there.
years old at the time, found himself assigned to a housing unit that was
ruled by a gang. He was not a member of the gang, and on October 20,
2010, he recalls, a gang leader spit in his face. He decided that he
needed to retaliate. If he had not, he said, it would have “meant they
could keep spitting in my face. I wasn’t going to have that.”
before the guards were about to lock the inmates in their cells, Browder
punched the teen-ager who had spit at him. Four surveillance cameras
recorded this incident and its aftermath: a drawn-out beatdown of
Browder by about ten other teen-age inmates. The Department of
Correction’s official paperwork characterizes this incident as “a
multiple inmate fight.”