Three years ago Kalief Browder hanged himself, haunted by his ordeal at Rikers Island Prison where he had been held without trial for 33 months. He had spent nearly two years in solitary confinement where at times he was starved; he was beaten by gang members but also by prison guards – the latter of which was caught on security footage.
When he was finally released on May 29, 2013 (no charges were brought against him), he told his family this was his ‘re-birth at life.’ But Kalief struggled with depression and mental illness, and just over two years later, on June 6, 2015, he took his own life.
The night before his death, the 22-year-old Bronx native told his mother: ‘Ma, I just can’t take it anymore.’
His family’s ordeal continued when in October 2016, his mother – his greatest advocate and staunchest defender Venida Browder – died of a heart attack. Many claimed she died of a broken heart. She had spoken out publicly advocating for prison reform and even collaborated with rapper Jay Z and now-disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein to produce a documentary miniseries about her son titled, Time: The Kalief Browder Story.
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It’s been three years today since Kalief Browder took his own life after being haunted by his ordeal at Rikers Island Prison where he had been held without trial for 33 months. His brother, Akeem Browder is leading the family’s fight for criminal justice reform and wants to prevent others from experiencing what Kalief did
His brother Akeem had become a campaigner for criminal justice reform in light of Kalief’s imprisonment but has struggled to gain the support of New York’s politicians. Akeem wants to make his brother’s death mean something and today, three years on, he’s as determined as ever to realize that hope.
Speaking to DailyMail.com to mark the anniversary of Kalief’s passing, he said: ‘My family just went through having our second Mother’s Day without our mom last month. The following Mother’s Day, its Kalief’s birthday on May 25th, this was our third year without him is the third year without him. Then on June 6th he committed suicide.
‘We as a family have three dates that we bearing every year and yet every year that has passed so far, we have elected officials that come to us who want to take photos and do stories with us as a family knowing they are up for re-election but have not acted on criminal justice reform.’
Kalief was just 16 years old when he was arrested on May 15, 2010, after being accused of stealing a backpack with a camera, credit card, iPod Touch and $700 from another teen in the Bronx.
Kalief told arresting officers that he did not ‘rob anyone’ and allowed them to search him. Though officers did not find the backpack, Kalief was still arrested and taken to the 48th Police Precinct Station where he was interrogated by another officer and prosecutor.
The teen, who was on probation for a previous incident, was charged and not released. At his arraignment, bail was set at $3,000. His family could not raise the amount, and Kalief was sent to Rikers Island where he was imprisoned at the Robert N. Davoren Center (R.N.D.C.).
When his parents came up with money for his bail, it was denied, forcing Kalief to stay behind bars.
To try to protect himself from gang members and prison guards, Kalief tried to gain physical strength by doing push-ups and pull-ups inside his cell. But even becoming bigger could not protect him from being attacked, especially by prison guards.
On September 23, 2012, the teen was filmed in handcuffs after being brutally assaulted by guards, and the footage was eventually leaked to the public following his death. Besides facing violence often, even more, alarming is that Kalief spent nearly two years in solitary confinement, where he was still beaten by corrections officers when he was in the shower.
Part of the reason why his case never went to trial is due to the fact the assistant district attorney kept delaying it by deferring the criminal proceedings. In fact, it was deferred a total of 33 times until a judge released Kalief from Rikers on May 29, 2013, dismissing the case against him.
Soon after his release, Kalief passed his G.E.D. exam and enrolled at the Bronx Community College (BCC) where he completed 11 credits and had a grade point average of 3.5. But due to depression, Kalief did not attend BCC in the fall and re-enrolled in the spring with hopes of finishing out the school year strong.
Kalief harbored intense feelings of paranoia and had anti-psychotics prescribed for him. He attempted suicide six months after his release from prison.
He also wanted to help support his mother so he worked for a period of time as a security guard but was let go once the employer allegedly learned of his history with mental illness.
Kalief’s struggles with depression continued until he took his own life at his family home in the Bronx. Akeem told DailyMail.com that his brother never struggled with mental illness before being arrested in 2010.
‘There was nothing wrong with him mentally or physically or emotionally, nothing before he left,’ he said. ‘When he left and came back, it was a 180, a total difference. Besides in physicality, his mentality was totally messed up because of what he learned and experienced and was forced to do while he was there.’
Rikers Island Prison is notorious for being one of the worst facilities in the country. Located on a 400-acre island across from La Guardia Airport in the East River, as many as 10,000 people are held their daily. And about 85 percent of the inmates have not been convicted of a crime and are either being held on bail or remanded to custody, according to date from the City of New York.
Like Kalief, at least 1,500 people locked up at the overpopulated jail have waited more than a year for their criminal trials to begin.
Akeem revealed that he’s still upset that his family did not hear from New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo or even Mayor Bill de Blasio immediately after his brother’s death.
‘We don’t hear from Gov. Cuomo at all. De Blasio himself didn’t once come to my family and say I’m sorry to your family for your loss. And my mom before dying, only wanted for someone to take responsibility for doing this to her son,’ he said.
‘But yet in still, we voted that guy, de Blasio in office again because either people were misdirected in their decision making and because they heard he’s shutting down Rikers.
‘Meanwhile, he just sounds like he’s shutting it down and people are confused with the thought that isn’t this supposed to happen, yet we are still talking about it. There’s no movement.’
Back in January, Akeem was invited by Cuomo to his annual State of State address where the Democratic governor publicly promised to pass new criminal justice reform legislation that included ending cash bail for non-violent felonies, speedy trial requirements and enactment of more timely evidence discovery.
During his poignant speech, Cuomo declared, ‘Your brother did not die in vain.’
But the criminal justice reform legislation that Cuomo promised did not happen; it failed to be included into the final budget that was enacted in late March – which has left Akeem and others upset.
Though discussing his brother’s death is difficult for him at times, Akeem says that he is empowered to try and change the criminal justice system that failed Kalief by putting pressure on lawmakers to act before the legislative session ends this month.
‘I can’t protect Kalief, but I can put in the provisions to help protect another child. We are coming up with alternatives to fight incarceration, and I want to empower the people to understand that.
‘Anyone can say they are for criminal justice reform, but if you don’t do anything to reform if you’re really not for it,’ said Akeem, who created The Kalief Browder Foundation in his brother’s memory.
Akeem, who traveled to the state Capitol on Wednesday, is calling for Democrat and Republican lawmakers to sign the pledge to end cash bail. He’s asked those who support the movement to use hashtag #IstandwithKalief, which several politicians and celebrities have already shared on social media.
‘I’ve created a pledge for New York’s politicians to sign and support saying that they are for changing the system and I’m publishing everyone’s names who either sign it or don’t,’ he explained.
‘That way, we as the people can see if our senators, assemblymen, or governor is truly behind change and then can decide if we want to elect them in the future.’
Akeem, who says his family is all still struggling without Kalief and their mother, is also calling for the three laws Cuomo promised to be passed and believes that they would have helped his brother had they existed years ago.
‘We are fighting to put an end to wealth based detention and reduce the jail population with a speedy trial, discovery, and bail. We have built a coalition of people that understand this is just wrong, and we won’t stand for it anymore,’ he said.
‘And we can’t also deny the fact that it is so biased that someone like Harvey Weinstein, who was one of the executive producers’s on the show for my brother and accused by 15 women of sexual misconduct, he himself is privileged enough to afford a 1 million dollar bail and walk out scotch free without even a second in jail.
‘However, that just shows a person as dangerous as Harvey Weinstein can get out, but yet Kalief who had a backpack alleged against him couldn’t’ get out of jail for $3,000, but the severity of dangerousness didn’t matter. It has nothing to do with dangerousness and everything to do with can you afford bail.
‘It’s sickening that on my brother’s birthday is the day that he bailed out for $1million on May 25th.’