The Legacy Of Kalief Browder And Closure Of Rikers Island Jail


Last month, Spike TV premiered its miniseries recounting the life and incarceration of Kalief Browder.  Browder’s death compelled many New Yorkers to take to the streets in protest demanding accountable policing, prison reform and the closure of Rikers Island Jail. On March 31, 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the closure of Rikers Island where Browder was jailed.

On May 15, 2010, then sixteen year old, Browder was arrested by the New York Police department for allegedly stealing a backpack in a routine “stop and frisk”.  Neither Browder nor his friend who was also arrested was in possession of the stolen backpack. The arresting officer would later claim that Kalief Browder assaulted and attempted to rob him. Throughout questioning Browder maintained his innocence, he was charged with robbery and grand larceny. Since his family could not afford the 3000 dollar bail, Browder was imprisoned at Riker’s Island jail. Browder would spend two of his three years in solitary confinement, which the corrections officers used as a means to punish inmates for a variety of offenses however minor or to pursue personal vendettas. During his incarceration, Browder was scheduled to come before a judge several times but the trial was repeatedly postponed, a violation of his sixth amendment right to a speedy trial. Toward the end of his term, Browder was offered a plea deal that would see him released if he confessed to the crime of stealing the backpack. Browder chose to maintain his innocence, as he did since his arrest, and was returned to Rikers Island.

In 2013, the charges against him were dropped and Browder was released. He struggled with readjusting to life at home and his family described an alarming change in his demeanor and personality. He was often consumed by paranoia and depression. After many previous suicide attempts, on June 6, 2015, twenty-two year old Kalief Browder committed suicide in his family’s Bronx home. Browder reported abuse at the hand of both correctional officers and other inmates in a series of interviews with Jennifer Gonnerman after his release; the New Yorker obtained video footage that confirmed Browder’s allegations. When assaulted by correctional officers, inmates were threatened with solitary confinement if they sought medical treatment or reported the incident. Inmates were also denied meals and showers as a means of punishment.

Inspired by Browder’s story, a campaign has been mounting for several years to close down the city jail. In the weeks and months following Kalief Browder’s death, Black Lives Matter protests were held around the city calling for the closure of Rikers Island Jail and the end of the “stop and frisk” policy that allows the New York Police Department to stop, question, arrest and detain civilians based on an officer’s  “reasonable suspicions”. The practice disproportionately targets young Black and Latino New Yorkers, and is a practice that New York District Judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, called “unconstitutional”. Long-term studies have found that “stop and frisk” does not effectively deter crime or stop crimes in progress.

On March 31st, an independent commission convened by New York City council called for the closure of Rikers island prison over the next ten years. The process begins by first reducing the number of inmates from 8,000 to 5,000 and eventually constructing five smaller jails, one in each of the city’s five boroughs. The report also called for bail reform, alternative sentencing as well as providing education and job training to inmates to prepare them for their re-entry into society.