Kalief Browder and the Enduring Torture of Wrongful Imprisonment

The 22-year-old from the Bronx committed suicide this weekend after spending three years in jail—even though he was never convicted of a crime.

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Jun 8 2015, 4:54pm

Kalief Browder's story seems impossibly unfair, a collection of individual outrages adding up to a horror that can't be captured by the bare facts. A black kid from the Bronx who was arrested under suspicion of stealing a backpack at 16, Browder was held by New York City for three years without trial, where he was stuck in solitary confinement for months on end—when he wasn't enduring beatings at the hands of guards or other inmates.

Jennifer Gonnerman detailed all of that in an incredible New Yorker story last year, but this weekend brought the brutal coda: The 22-year-old committed suicide on Saturday after attempting to kill himself more than once while in jail—and at least once since his release.

Browder hadn't been the same since his release in 2013. He found holding down a job—much less dating and long-term career ambitions and the other things twentysomethings take for granted—next to impossible. Still, an anonymous donor volunteered to pay for this past semester at Bronx Community College, and Browder seemed, slowly, to be trending in the right direction.

"He was doing better than he ever had been since he'd come from jail," Gonnerman told me in an interview Monday. As she wrote after Browder's death, he had recently been embraced by celebrities like Rosie O'Donnell and Jay Z. (O'Donnell has since tweeted a poem suggesting she'd been texting with Browder an hour before he hanged himself outside a window at his mother's home.)

But even though Browder seemed to have new friends in powerful places, that wasn't exactly his ambition.

"He had no desire to be a celebrity or to be in the spotlight all the time," Gonnerman said.

For more on policing in America, check out VICE News' Officer Involved blog.

Over the past year, we've seen horrific case after horrific case where unarmed black men were killed by police in the name of public safety. Browder's death doesn't exactly fit that mold. There was no dramatic, fatal confrontation with police. There are no conflicting accounts about hands being up or backs being turned. Certainly, Browder won't be listed in the spiffy new databases unveiled last week by some of the premier news organizations in the world to document the deaths caused by American cops.

But Browder's death is just as much of a product of our broken criminal justice system as those of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, or Walter Scott. Browder's was not a police killing, but he was effectively destroyed by the state, beginning with the cops who questioned and detained him on flimsy charges.

Perhaps most heart-wrenching about this whole thing is that the system seemed to be finally be working. Gonnerman and one of the most prestigious publications in the country had devoted a massive print feature to his tale, and she was still on the case, following up the original story with searing video of Browder being beaten in jail. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio mentioned Browder by name when announcing reforms of the city's court system. O'Donnell gave him a MacBook Air as a gift. Browder had a picture of himself with Jay Z where, according to Gonnerman, he looked "euphoric."

It wasn't enough.

"He obviously needed much more than attention or any kind of material resources," Gonnerman told me. "The emotional pain ran very, very deep. In the end, I think, no amount of help or words of comfort were enough to undo that psychological damage."

Browder's death reminds us that what happens after you're released from the clutches of the criminal justice system is just as important as your time in its grasp. It's one thing to be out of jail, and another to be truly free.

Kalief Browder never got there, and criminal justice reform in America still has a long way to go.

"All the cell phone video that we've been seeing and all of these protests have done an excellent job of beginning to bring the question of police accountability onto the frontpages of our newspapers," Gonnerman said. "But now is time for that same conversation, that same push for accountability, to be happening in our jails and our prisons."

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