Venida Browder, a mother who championed the end of solitary confinement for young people after her son Kalief spent three years in jail without being charged and eventually committed suicide, died on Friday in a New York hospital from complications relating to a heart attack. She was 63 years old.
Her attorney Paul Prestia told media he believed "she literally died of a broken heart."
"She was a woman of incredible grace and compassion who tirelessly fought for justice for her son Kalief and who championed the civil rights of others in our city," Prestia said Sunday. "But the stress from this crusade coupled with the strain of the pending lawsuits against the city and the pain from the death were too much to for her to bear."
Earlier this month, Venida joined Jay Z in announcing a new docu-series about Kalief's story and to criticize the practice of putting teenagers in solitary confinement. A few days later, the New York City jail system announced it no longer holds inmates under the age of 21 in solitary confinement.
Kalief's story became symbolic of a broken criminal justice system. In 2010, the then-16-year-old was arrested on robbery charges for allegedly stealing a backpack. He spent three years on Rikers Island, a lengthy profile in the New Yorker reported, because his case continued to be delayed. During that time, he was abused by correction officers as well as fellow inmates, and was put in solitary confinement a number of times, including one 17-month stint. In total, he spent roughly two years solitary.
Eventually, the case was dismissed because the complainant left the country. Kalief returned home to live with his mom and brothers, but the impact of the time lost behind bars—and the experiences he had there—weighed heavily on him. In June 2015, he committed suicide. His family told the New Yorker that Kalief was paranoid and depressed.
The night before he hanged himself using a cord made from his bed sheets (which he learned from his time at Rikers), he told Venida, "Ma, I can't take it anymore."
"Kalief, you've got a lot of people in your corner," she told him.
Venida's death speaks to the unique stressors black women, and especially black mothers, have to deal with. Linda Goler Blount is the president and CEO of The Black Women's Health Imperative. She says the circumstances surrounding Venida's death were extremely tragic.
"From a science perspective, we don't know if she had some underlying heart disease or precondition that caused this," she tells Broadly. "While we can't say for certain that her son's incarceration and subsequent suicide led to her death, what we do know is that she was under extraordinary stress."
It's "a mother's worst nightmare to lose a child and to lose a child in this way," she adds.
Goler says research has shown that levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, are higher in black women than white women, and that increases the risk for heart disease and other chronic illnesses. "Heart attacks express differently in women than in men," she explains, "and it tends to happen when we are under enormous stress." One study, in fact, suggested elevated levels of cortisol as a result of racial provocation may be one reason why African-Americans have high rates of cardiovascular disease.
Goler says in order to better understand and treat chronic diseases, the lived experiences of black women need to be taken into account in research inside both the laboratory and the exam room. "Researchers and physicians don't understand what kind of toll being a black woman in this society takes on our health emotionally and physically," she says. "But we know that there's something because we're seeing it expressed in diseases."
"Despite the city failing her and Kalief, she firmly believed that we could work to create a more fair and just system," City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement. "Venida was a woman of immense courage and boundless optimism. When you were with her, it was impossible to not feel hopeful about a better future. It is now up to us to continue her work. "