No relief on Rikers: the Kalief Browder story

Conroy Baltimore recounts a tragic story that shows serious problems in the US justice system.

Rikers Island is one of the most well-known prisons across the United States. Located between the Bronx and Queens, the small island was originally a “pit stop” for those that awaited trial for alleged crimes. However, on multiple occasions, there have been inmates who have gone to Rikers Island accused of small crimes that should have kept them there only for days.

Days turned into months. Months turned into years. Kalief Browder was one such inmate that suffered that fate. Although sadly for Mr Browder, after he finally left Rikers Island, he committed suicide.

A few days before his 17th birthday, Kalief Browder and his friends were leaving a party in the Bronx and were stopped by cops who were reporting to calls of a robbery. At first, the officers questioned him and his friends about their whereabouts and were going to let them go. However, the victim, Roberto Bautista, claimed that Mr Browder and his friends did not assault him that night but two weeks before.

At that point, they were handcuffed, taken to a precinct and placed in a holding cell. The next day Mr Browder was taken to a courtroom where he was charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault. Since he was already on probation due to a previous run-in with the law and could not make the $3,000 bail, he was sent to Rikers Island to await trial.

Rikers Island received its reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the country due to the corruption inside the prison over the years. Inmates that go there often worry if they will make it before their court date because they are afraid of the court mishandling their case, other inmates and correctional officers. Rikers’ correctional officers have a bad reputation for inciting violence with the inmates.     

“[The correctional officer] repeatedly kicked Mr Spear’s head, like he was kicking a field goal”      

Take the story of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson in 2008, who was held at Rikers because he violated his probation for a juvenile robbery accusation. He would never see his trial because he was beaten and stomped to death by two other prisoners. After an investigation, it was revealed that the two inmates were part of what was called “the program”, which was a secret society run by the correctional officers and used for the purposes of maintaining order.

In another instance, correctional officer Brian Coll assaulted and killed inmate Ronald Spear after a heated exchange. After officers came to restrain the prisoner, Brian Coll “repeatedly kicked Mr Spear’s head, like he was kicking a field goal”, said Anthony Torres, another correctional officer who was present at the time of the assault. These are just two of many instances that happened on Rikers Island, and now Kalief Browder was being thrown into this hellhole.

He was arraigned in the Bronx District Court, one of the worst court districts in New York. Cases were backed up for months at a time there, which resulted in inmates staying on Riker’s Island longer. His trial date was originally set for 10 December 2010 but it did not happen. On 28 January 2011, he was brought back to the court only for the prosecutor to ask for a week’s delay in the case. Because Bronx courts are backed up, one week turned into six weeks and Mr Browder was not seen again in court until 9 March 2011.

Prosecution was not ready to proceed with the case. This became a recurring theme over the next few months. He was called to the courthouse four times after that: 23 June, 24 August, 4 November and 2 December.

Frustrated with the dealing of his case, he would eventually get into fights with other inmates and correctional officers that would get him placed in solitary confinement. When an inmate is placed in solitary confinement, there is no contact with the outside world. Inmates are locked up for 23 of the 24 hours in a day, which has been known to have lasting effects on individuals.

Kalief Browder was kept in solitary for almost two years and finally reached his breaking point on 8 February 2012. He tore his bed sheets up and made a noose and tried to hang himself in his cell. Although all items that could harm him were removed, he was still placed back into solitary confinement. On 18 February 2012, a day after he went to court to yet again be told that his trial would be delayed, he began to cut his wrists using pieces of a plastic bucket that still remained in his cell but was stopped by a passing guard.

However, he was not removed from solitary confinement.

Instead, he would continue to be called to the court over and over again just to have his case turned away because the prosecutors were not ready to proceed with the trial. On 13 March 2013, he appeared before Judge Patricia DiMango, the eighth judge he had seen since he had been locked away with no trial. Judge DiMango explained to him that if he went to trial and was found guilty, he could end up spending 15 years in prison. She offered him a plea deal where if he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanours, he would get granted time served and be able to go home.

As tempting as the offer was, he turned it down and returned to Rikers. People assumed he was crazy for turning it down but he wanted to maintain his innocence. He did not steal the backpack that had cost him two years of his life. Finally, on 29 May 2013, he was told that his case was going to be dismissed because the alleged victim, Roberto Bautista, went back to Mexico.

He left prison feeling excited about being able to live life again, but that feeling slowly started to disappear. Yes, he was out of prison but that did not stop the effects that prison had on his mental health. He was enrolled in Bronx Community College and dropped out suddenly. In November of 2013, six months after leaving Rikers Island, he tried to hang himself from his bannister at home. He was confined to a psych ward for a week and the day after his release, he was back in there again because of paranoia.

On 6 June 2015, Kalief Browder took his life by hanging himself with an air-conditioning cord. He was due back in Bronx court for disorderly conduct charges. Family members say he had flashbacks, which ultimately led to him killing himself. The thought of being back on Rikers Island waiting for his trial to be heard again was too much for him to handle. 

News of his story spread across the country and became the topic of many discussions such as shutting down Rikers, the problem with solitary confinement, suicide prevention, and the many problems with the US justice system. His life and death have been turned into a movie that is being executive produced by Jay Z. He hopes that by telling his story many people will come to realise that there are injustices that are going on with the US justice system that need to be solved.

Drastic measures need to be taken to ensure something like this does not happen in any prison around the country. However, with all the injustices that happen on that island, hopefully there will be some relief on Rikers soon.

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