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We All Killed Kalief Browder

Before his tragic suicide, the justice system failed Kalief Browder too many times.

June 11, 2015

Hundreds of men and women commit suicide in our nation’s jails and prisons every year — it is always among the leading causes of death, right up there with heart disease. These suicides occur not just because of the physical and emotional toll that incarceration necessarily takes upon a prisoner — the point of incarceration in a nation known for its exceptionally harsh punishment — but because of the studied cruelty and callousness with which inmates are treated by prison officials and corrections officers.

When a federal inmate commits suicide at ADX-Florence, the “Supermax” prison in Colorado, for example, guards zealously place shackles on the body, post-mortem, before releasing it to the local coroner. Take a close look at the suicide of Billy Slagle in Ohio a few years ago if you want to understand the culture within which prison officials and corrections officers operate. It’s a different branch of the same tree that explains why so many of our prisons and jails neglect to provide adequate medical care for inmates.

What we don’t yet have is an accurate count of the toll from suicide committed by men and women (and boys and girls) who spent hard time in jail or prison and then are freed but whose minds and lives are forever ruined by the abuse and neglect they encountered while incarcerated. Even before the heartbreaking death of young Kalief Browder last weekend there was a nascent push to better chronicle the lives and deaths of the wrongfully convicted who kill themselves or who die prematurely on the outside after expending so much of their life force getting free. Perhaps now those efforts will speed up and we’ll have the statistics we know will be more than any of us can bear.

Poor Browder died because he could not in the end overcome the violence and trauma we allowed to be inflicted upon him on Rikers Island, a scenario that was not just foreseeable in some abstract way but a pattern and practice within that disgraceful facility that was underway long before he arrived there and long after he left. He died because our judges and politicians and police and prosecutors and corrections union bosses and public defenders allow a place like that to exist.

He died because he couldn’t make bail, because he was not protected from his guards and fellow inmates, because the shell he had to grow to survive there all those years did not set hard enough, and because the rule of law in so many of our jails and prisons is in fact lawlessness. Kalief Browder died because not enough people in power gave a damn about him and countless others like him — because we still have jurisdictions that think it is fair and just and smart to keep children locked up in solitary confinement. He died because you and I didn’t raise our voices loud enough in time.

And we all today mourn his death, and even know about it, only because he had bravely helped tell his story to a talented writer who chronicled it for an important magazine. How many other stories like this, do you suppose, go untold each day, each week, as the nation’s teeming jails release back into the world broken, shattered bodies and souls. When I heard about Browder’s death I thought immediately of the horror stories contained in Nell Bernstein’s wrenching book, “Burning Down the House,” which chronicles the ways in which we cruelly treat our children in juvenile detention facilities — especially the children of the disenfranchised and marginalized. The story here isn’t that Browder’s treatment in jail is unusual. The story is that it is routine. Not just at Rikers but in countless other places across the nation.

Browder’s death reminds us that our justice systems are relentlessly unrepentant. Except for the occasional judge or enlightened prosecutor no one really ever says “sorry” to the innocent people who are caught up in it, like Browder was. No one really ever ensures that they have adequate counseling or treatment to help transition them back to the land of the free. Some states, eventually, compensate the wrongfully convicted and this is a sign of progress. But it surely is no guarantee. Look at how state officials in Louisiana are jerking around Glenn Ford, a man who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit and who received for his troubles only shoddy prison medical care and treatment for the cancer that now ravages his body.

It’s not difficult to identify what ought to be done to try to prevent the next tragedy. Our children shouldn’t be treated like adults in jails. There should be a blanket prohibition against solitary confinement for teenagers. Our jailers must be held accountable for the violence they encourage or permit. The debt we owe to those we wrongfully convict or detain ought to be quickly paid. These proposed solutions are not new. The only thing that’s new is the sad realization that many more wronged kids are going to be harmed, or harm themselves, before change comes to those who need it most.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Thinkstock)