The family of Kalief Browder, the Bronx teenager who spent more than a thousand days imprisoned on Rikers Island — much of this time in solitary confinement — without ever being sentenced and who later committed suicide, is suing New York City for $20 million.
Although Browder was eventually released from Rikers, his parents say the experience led their son to end his life this past June. The suit, announced Thursday, alleges Browder experienced "systemic and agonizing physical and mental abuse… tantamount to torture" while he was detained at Rikers. The experience caused "irreparable" damage and caused Browder to become suicidal, it said.
The complaint also reveals that Browder tried to kill himself four times while incarcerated, according to the New York Daily News. Browder's parents, Venida and Everett, will name the New York City Department of Correction, the Bronx District Attorney's office, and various city health agencies as parties to their suit.
Kalief Browder was just 16 years old when he was first detained by police in May 2010. According to a New Yorker profile of Browder, the teen was walking home with a friend in the Belmont section of the Bronx when a police squad car approached. Officers spoke to the teens and said a man had accused Browder of robbery.
"I didn't rob anybody," Browder told the police. "You can check my pockets." The officers searched Browder and his friend and found nothing. Police arrested him despite the lack of evidence, and he was later charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. Browder ended up at Rikers, where he was housed with a group of gang members, though he was not part of the gang himself.
Unable to make the $3,000 bail, Browder was detained in the prison for three years as courts delayed his trial time and again. He spent two of those years in solitary. Through it all, Browder maintained his innocence.
While in prison, Browder was also brutally beaten by both inmates and prison guards. Surveillance video taken from inside the jail captured multiple other acts of violence, including one incident in which 10 gang members beat Browder. He was also allegedly assaulted by a corrections officer in retaliation for a suicide attempt.
After the New Yorker profile went to press in 2014, Browder's case drew widespread attention.
"Kalief Browder's tragic story put a human face on Rikers Island's culture of delay — a culture with profound human and fiscal costs for defendants and our city," New York Mayor Bill De Blasio said in April. The case prompted De Blasio to prohibit solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds on Rikers.
"The reforms have provided some solace for his parents," lawyer Paul Prestia told the Daily News. "But it can't bring their son back."
Before Browder took his own life, he reportedly told his mother, "Ma, I can't take it anymore."
At the time, Prestia told the Los Angeles Times that he believed the 22-year-old's suicide was the result of "his incarceration and those hundreds and hundreds of nights in solitary confinement, where there were mice crawling up his sheets in that little cell."
"Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time … those were direct contributing factors," Prestia said. "That was the pain and sadness that he had to deal with every day, and I think it was too much for him."
"He was a really good kid," added Prestia.
The city has yet to respond specifically to the suit. "The circumstances of Mr. Browder's death were tragic," a spokesman for the city law department told the Daily News. "The city will review a lawsuit if one is filed."