By Marian Wright Edelman
“Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid. I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.” – Kalief Browder to Jennifer Gonnerman, staff writer for The New Yorker.
Nobody of any age should be held in jail without a trial for three years. No child or adolescent should be held in an adult jail. No child or youth should be housed in facilities where those entrusted to care for them violently assault them. Yet, Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old accused of stealing a backpack was kept in one of the most violent adult jails in the United States, Riker’s Island in New York City, for three years without a trial.
Even worse, he spent more than two years of that time in solitary confinement, locked up alone except to go to the shower, the recreation area, the visit room or the medical clinic. This was torture. The suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder on June 6, barely two years after his release and return home, was the final horror in his tragic and brutal journey into the depths of the adult criminal justice system in New York City and state.
At Riker’s, Kalief was cruelly beaten by juvenile gangs, and beaten by a guard as he was calmly walking from solitary confinement to the shower. This violent abuse was caught on video and made public in April by an investigative reporter from The New Yorker. Other alleged abuses were not: the cruel guards who denied him meals, medical care, trips to the shower and extended his time in solitary confinement by making up disciplinary problems.
It should surprise no one that a teenager subjected to this continuous torture; a teenager who maintained his innocence and just wanted his right to a day in court to prove it; a teenager who turned down plea deals repeatedly although it would have meant he could go home immediately; a teenager with no history of mental illness before Riker’s Island tried to commit suicide while held in solitary confinement for two of his three years there. It is beyond shameful that he was held without a trial, without being proven guilty and because he was a poor young Black male.
If New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators act immediately before this state legislative session ends this week to raise the age of criminal responsibility, as 48 states have done, more tragedies and suffering like Kalief Browder’s might be avoided. And youths still at Riker’s might have reduced suffering and pain.
Kalief Browder’s cruel and unjust treatment began May 15, 2010, when he was picked up with a friend in the Bronx. He shared his story later with a reporter from The New Yorker to make sure this would never happen to anyone else. Kalief was stopped for allegedly stealing a backpack earlier that evening.
Kalief Browder was immediately funneled into the adult criminal justice system because of the unjust lottery of geography and poverty. New York remains one of only two states in our country that still automatically treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. More than a century ago, states began to legislate that children should be treated as children to prevent the inhumane, dangerous, and ineffective practice of putting them in adult jails.
Kalief Browder ended up at Riker’s Island. His family could not afford to hire an attorney or pay the $3,000 bail to keep him home to await a trial that never took place over three years.
Sean Joe, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, and an authority on suicidal behavior among African American males, says that among Black Americans, Black males between the ages of 15 to 24 are most likely to commit suicide.
More than a thousand days after arriving at Riker’s Island, Kalief Browder was abruptly released four days after his 20th birthday. He had spent most of the 17 previous months in solitary confinement. The charges against him were dismissed.
His tragically short life has already made a difference. Mayor Bill de Blasio led New York City to ban solitary confinement for all juveniles after he heard Kalief’s story. But the governor and state legislature without another moment’s delay must also take action on the age at which children can be placed in adult jails as the Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice recommended.
Every one of us including our elected officials must be held accountable. Only then will the cries of the prophets for justice and peace and America’s pretentions to be a just nation become a lasting reality.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.