What Kalief Browder's Imprisonment and Suicide Taught America About Criminal Justice

Talking to the attorney for the kid from the Bronx who spent three years on Rikers Island without a trial and never recovered.

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Sep 22 2015, 1:00pm

Kalief Browder on a good day in February, 2015, at Paul Prestia's law firm in downtown Manhattan

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On June 6, 2015, Kalief Browder hung himself in his Bronx home less than two weeks after his 22nd birthday.

It was the shocking end to a tale that haunted New York City and the country: As a sophomore in high school, Browder was sucked into the criminal justice system for three years without trial, sequestered on Rikers Island—a jail now synonymous with bloodshed—for allegedly stealing a backpack. He spent much of that time in solitary confinement. Suicide attempts, starvation, and violence followed, all later captured in a stunning profile by Jennifer Gonnerman in the New Yorker. Browder served as the city's eyes and ears for what was going on just off of Queens, as well as a jaded product of it.

That's what made Browder's death about two years after his release so heartbreaking: many of us watched the groundwork get laid. We were tied to everything that happened to him, whether we liked it or not.

But for Paul Prestia, the story of Kalief Browder did not end when the New Yorker profile was published. As his lawyer, Prestia watched the young man maneuver through the sudden glow of media attention, the permanent aftershock of Rikers, and the additional hardships of being a black male in a rough neighborhood. This was no ordinary client-attorney relationship—just as Browder was friends with Prestia's officemates in downtown Manhattan, Prestia was visiting him in psych wards after subsequent suicide attempts and bouts of hyper-paranoia.

Prestia brought Browder to Brooklyn Nets basketball games, introduced him to his children, and invited him to office parties—all simply because he felt he needed to: He was worried about the kid's future. He had become Browder's attorney, his close friend, his older brother, and his counselor, all wrapped into one.

Speaking with Prestia in his office earlier this month wasn't exactly easy. He would pause while telling stories about his late client, waiting to regain himself. "Yeah, but, you know, he was such a good kid." It was as if Prestia still couldn't believe what happened, and sometimes I was at a loss for words, too. We would delve into Browder's aspirations, the potential he had, and once it got too emotional, too real, too close, we'd both retreat and start from a different angle.

"On that Saturday, my kids had a birthday party they had to go to. And I was like, 'Daddy can't go. Kalief went to Heaven,'" Prestia said. "Then I went up to the Bronx. And a week later, I'm giving a eulogy at his funeral and the kid's in a casket.

"They don't prepare you for that in law school," he adds. "To me, this entire thing was preventable and unjustifiable. It completely shouldn't have happened."

In a wide-ranging interview with VICE, Paul Prestia explained what it meant to be Kalief Browder's lawyer—a case he said changed his view of justice entirely (the Browder family recently filed a $20 million wrongful death suit against the city)—and how the struggle of this one young black man has impacted the country.

Paul Prestia. Photos by Jason Bergman unless otherwise noted

VICE: There are so many intertwined issues with Kalief's story—what's wrong with the system, how it impacts young men of color, and what it can drive someone to do. But I'm wondering first: How did you meet him?
Paul Prestia: One of his relatives that I previously represented told me about Kalief, that he was accused of a robbery, and he was in jail for three years. That was really the extent of it. Kalief had just gotten out. And I was like, that just seems impossible. So I said, "Well, have him come see me. Put me in touch with him." I don't think Kalief even had a cell phone at that point. And so Kalief and I met within a month of him being home, toward the end of June of 2013.

Was he a media figure at that point?
At first, it was just Kalief and I. He came in, and he started telling me some of the stuff that he started going through. Not that much, but enough to pique my interest. Like, holy shit.

But I could tell he was jaded—the resentment, the anger. What he had been through... it was just palpable on him. You could feel it. So I remember he came in, and he told me some of it, some of what he had gone through, some of the solitary confinement stuff. But he wasn't really talkative. We just met, so he wasn't about to open up to me. We filed a notice of claim with the city, which I drafted. Then he came down for a 50-h hearing, probably within a month or so. And that's the municipal hearing that the city requires once you file a notice of claim. The attorney asked him questions, and, reluctantly, he started speaking more about what he went through—because the questions were something he had to go through. And by that point, I had spoken to him a little bit more prior to the hearing [and] was starting to get a general sense of what he had endured, but still not even scratching the surface.

To be honest, when he would come in, I was totally blown away, in the worst way possible. Like, holy shit, man. This kid is so young. Because he was 20 at the time—he was still a kid. He didn't have any adolescence. So then, when he started speaking more at the 50-h hearing, that's when I was like, Wow. This is completely fucked up what happened to this kid.

When did you first realize the extent to what this kid had gone through?
That was the first time he mentioned the starvation. He hadn't mentioned that [to me]. He mentioned the solitary stuff, but he hadn't articulated the details yet. So we kind of hung out that day, and he started talking about the deprivation of food. When we came back here, we were talking a little bit more, and he was getting a bit more comfortable with me. And I had this human reaction to him talking about being starved, that I was like, "Let's get something to eat." We went down to this deli downstairs where you fill up the trays, and I was like, "Hey, Kalief, get some food. Eat something." Usually you fill up those trays, it's ten or 12 bucks. He piled on like 40 bucks worth of food. And he just ate. He didn't even talk much. He just ate.

That was really like the first time I got to know him. We spent a lot of time together after that. I remember when he first started telling me about the suicide attempts, and speaking about them at the 50-h hearing and to me about that. That's when I realized I really had to look out for this kid. Not only because it was my case—I was generally worried about him. I had children, and I feel like that can happen again. I know they released him with nothing—no mental health[care] at all. I can tell how completely broken this kid was. I usually take care of my clients, and I'm very personal with them. With him, it was just different. It was always different with him. And it wasn't always about his case—it was just him.

I'd be like, "Hey, come down every couple of weeks." Sometimes, we went over stuff with the case, and sometimes, things weren't happening with the case. Then we filed a lawsuit, so we went over some things. But we just started hanging out. It was hard to sort of gauge where he was at—he really knew the impact and the significance of what he had gone through. He really didn't want to see that happen to other kids. So he was OK with actually speaking about it. My impression was, if we don't say anything about this case, no one is ever gonna know what happened to this case, and nothing's ever gonna change.

By then, he had gone through with another suicide attempt. That was back in November of 2013. So he was hospitalized at St. Barnabas Hospital [in the Bronx].

While you guys were talking?

Yeah, he disappeared for like, eight days. He was just gone, and I had no idea where he was. He told me he had just got out of the hospital. You have to understand his mentality. He's a young kid. He had been hardened by then. He wanted to believe that he was OK. I wanted to encourage him to talk to somebody, but in his mindset, he was like, "I'm OK, I just went through this. I'm 20 years old. I'm OK." He was reluctant to speak to a counselor. All the counselors he went to were doctors in jail. He had bad experiences with them. They denied treating him, or he came in when he really tried to hurt himself, and they'd say, "Oh, he looks fine." And they'd send him back into solitary, of all places. He was really reluctant to go down that path. He had huge trust issues. So I was like, I don't know, sort of trying to take up that role.

He was totally clueless. He didn't know anything about email, or Facebook. I had shown him stuff like that. But then he got into his GED program. After he was released from St. Barnabas, after that first suicide attempt, they got him counseling and a psychiatrist. After a while, he knew that was a good thing. Then he went and got his GED. For me, I was like, the worst thing for this kid is the idle time. Sitting around home, not doing anything, is the worst thing possible. That was really where things were at. That's basically it. And then he was looking to do something for the summer, so I hooked him up with my friend who sells jewelry. So he was handing out fliers for him downstairs from my office, which was great because he was always here. He was here every day. He always came in. He knew everybody on my floor, and everybody liked him. He was really enjoying that. He had just gotten his GED, so he was excited about that. He was thinking about college now in the fall.

And what was his mood throughout all of this?
He kept having these little setbacks. He was never 100 percent. He had some good days, when he was smiling, but once I could check him out and gauge him, I knew if he was totally off one day or if he was OK. We'd gone to a basketball game one night over the holidays, in 2013, and then after that summer, in 2014, he was doing better. Then he was like thinking of going to college. That's when he enrolled in Bronx Community College (BCC). He was having a hard time, at first, but he adjusted. At that point, we were already working with Jenn on the New Yorker piece. She spent a lot of time with him and I. She became a friend of his also. That was really important to him, because he didn't have a lot of those. Even where he lived, a lot of people in his neighborhood weren't good friends of his. That's just how it was with him. But he was going through a lot of shit. Then he dropped out at BCC toward the end of this last fall semester, and at that point, I don't know what happened.

That's when he went through two more hospitalizations. By that time, he was gone—nobody knew where he was, for over a week. And that was really scary. Because I thought he was dead somewhere. Then finally, his mom was like, "He's been in Harlem Hospital for a week." And I was like, "What the fuck? They didn't call you guys?" They never even told his family. Just drugged him up and kept him there. He was on and off on the medications. He barely even knew what he was taking. Then he came back after that, in January, and I saw him in the psych ward. I went there and I saw him. And man, that was fucking heartbreaking. Just to see him in that blue rubber room. I do a lot of shit for my clients—I handle their cases, I always make sure they get the best results or whatever—but that was like... I never expected to have to go and do that. It really wasn't a matter of having to do that, but wanting to do that. I wanted to make sure that kid was OK. Seeing him in those blue PJs and that blue rubber room and the conditions he was in. Man, he was totally broken again at that point.

Even after he took his life, we spoke about it for a week in the news, and then it was gone. I was talking to my friends and was like, "What the fuck? That's it. It's over?"

These hospitalizations were back to back. He came in around Christmas, and then he disappeared. He came out for like, four or five days. He called me and was like, "Prestia, I'm all right." I said to him, "Oh, we're gonna go to a Nets game." My friends had gotten tickets, and he was supposed to come down that night. And he was gone again. He was hospitalized. His nurse said he tried to kill himself again. Something was going on at the house, and then he went back into the hospital. He even called me once, and was like, "I can't do it anymore, Prestia. I can't do it." And I was like, "Yo, you're crazy. You can't do this right now. If you do this, the city is gonna win." I was always like, there's so much to live for. That's why when we were together, it wasn't about the case. Sometimes, he didn't even want to talk about it. I'd like badger him, because I needed to know stuff, and he'd open up and tell me. But we were just bullshitting, laughing. Talking about girls and stuff and whatever. What I was doing with my kids. Just trying to send that message that there was more out there from him, so much to experience.

When he got out, in January of 2015, he came down to the office, and he was super fucking paranoid at that point. That whole month, from December to January, he was super paranoid. People following him on the train, and this and that. That's when he dropped out of school, so he thought people were following him.

What was your knowledge of Rikers Island—its gang violence, the jail system itself, and everything that Kalief's case was connected to—before you met him?
I had been to Rikers, visiting clients. You need at least half a day to do that. They had video conferences, just as an effective means of communications, especially with my criminal defendants. Even in terms of my civil rights work, and the people I represented in criminal court, and even as a prosecutor, I had some knowledge of what was going on in Rikers, but I couldn't believe that it could be to this extent. I didn't know they were putting kids that young into solitary. I had no fucking idea. I knew there was gang violence, and clients of mine getting threatened, but nothing as egregious as that.

So Kalief's case stood out from the beginning.
As soon as I heard it, I was like, this is the most incredible thing that someone could've gone through. And I watched the news and people were talking about such bullshit. This is like, the most fucked up thing that anyone could endure, in New York of all places. This was happening. You hear about it, you read the articles, and you hear stuff from clients. But when you hear it like that, you can't help but be affected by it. Even in the few interviews that he gave, it was so genuine what he was saying. That's what annoyed me the most about the city's position—not that they're not allowed to have a position—but that they were so skeptical and cynical about this kid. Like he was trying to pull a fast one. Are you fucking kidding me? You cannot make that shit up. You can't.

Do you think that skepticism got to him?
Yeah, definitely. And I know the city had an obligation to settle it with him, and most of these cases don't settle in two years. They don't. They had no obligation; it was their prerogative to go through the motions, like they always do. That's part of their strategy, in my opinion, for most of these cases. Do I think that if he didn't have this hanging over here, maybe if he was able to put this behind him, do I think he would've been relieved by it? Without a doubt. It was unequivocal.

I remember I went to UCLA Law School in February to speak to students, and I called him from out there. I was telling him about California. "Kalief, you can go to school out here some day. You can go away to school." You know, get out of the Bronx, because his environment wasn't that great. He had his family, but the environment up there wasn't conducive to anything but chaos. You had to go up there and see what it was like. There wasn't much for him. I told him about California and he couldn't believe it. "Kalief, you've never seen so much grass in your life." He just never got that opportunity. And he knew about it, too. He was aware of everything. That's why it's such a shame that he couldn't hang in there. Not that I'm blaming him or judging him, but he knew all about going away to school, getting married, having kids, having a job on Wall Street and wearing a suit. Those were all things he aspired to do, or have. He just never got there.

You mentioned before that they didn't prepare you for this in law school. What was that like? Because we saw it from such a different perspective, through the New Yorker story and what was happening in the news. You had Mayor de Blasio writing that letter about Kalief. It seemed like reforms with Rikers were happening. But you kind of were in this therapist role for a kid who was crumbling beneath it all.
He was like my son. He was like my little brother. It was just different. It was completely different. This stuff didn't get to me after a while. We just talked about it and let it go. To me, it was his mental health. What else can you do? We tried to get him in an inpatient facility after those two hospitalizations, and he was stubborn about it. He was like, "I'm OK, I'm all right." And that's a lot to go into those places. You don't know what you're getting. They strap you into that bed, and you don't know what they're giving you. It's a lot for a kid that age to admit that there's something wrong with him. Nobody wants to admit that problem.

But once you got to know him, he was a really cool kid. You just had to sort of nail him. Because he had a lot of pride, too. You had to understand him.

And what do you make of everything that's happened since then? With Rikers reforms, the citywide bail fund, and this whole conversation we're having about criminal justice?
I mean, certainly he's been the impetus for so many changes. It's incredible. I couldn't even foresee that happening. But almost at every level—from the bail reform to the speedy trial initiatives, to the abolishment of solitary confinement for those under 18 and getting the sitting president to go visit a federal prison, I think this case had something to do with that. Now they're even talking about banning solitary for those under 21. I could foresee it being that impactful of a story, and I think that was the dichotomy of everything. After the New Yorker article comes out, the city is starting to make these changes with Kalief in mind.

Yet as far as the changes in Rikers go, those I'm a bit more skeptical of. At least with the bail reform—this clean idea that even the Manhattan District Attorney is supporting—and the mayor trying to clean up the backlogs in the courts, there's definitely improvements being made. But on Rikers, who the hell knows. The federal government had to come in and sue the city to make those changes. That kind of tells you what you need to know.

Also, how do we know that there's not a kid right now who's been sitting on Rikers for three years, just like Kalief? Who's to say that this can never happen again?
It's possible. But if you can take it in the context of what kind of case it is, it just makes it more unbelievable. If you have a murder case, or a multi-defendant case, or a racketeering case, you have tons of evidence, boxes of tape recordings, and this and that. That can take a while. This is like, one witness. That's all you have to do. A first-year assistant district attorney could've tried that case. Just brought the witness in, gone to trial, but it was excuse after excuse. So what other conclusion could I draw? That they just presumed him guilty. They really didn't care.

Especially with the DOC in mind. It's clear that a lot of these cases were stifled by the different levers of power, and that in many respects, they're still happening. You have 36-hour lockdowns still, gang violence exploding. It makes more sense to be skeptical than optimistic about Rikers. So since his death, how has your view toward criminal justice changed?
It changed it entirely. It's like, that's my mission right now, to do what we can to enact this change. For Kalief. I promised myself that whatever I can do to make that happen, speaking at vigils and going to Washington D.C. to support Kalief's Law, bringing his mother down, talking to his mother, saying, "Hey, you have to do this for him." Just like he knew he had to speak at certain points about his story, if it was the right opportunity and platform. I said to his mother, "Venida, you have to do this for him. You have to be strong. You have to speak out." Because what happens is that people will forget about it. He's not gonna have any legacy. Now his legacy is incredible. You would never have thought that one of the Supreme Court justices would say Kalief's name. Like, wow.

Now people have some awareness, like, Shit, 85 percent of these people are innocent, and just accused of a crime.

So, I mean, to me, this changed my whole perception of law. Maybe I was cynical to begin with, as a jaded sort of prosecutor, but I'm completely not interested in bullshit and politicians' lip service and superficial nonsense. Senator Rand Paul, he likes saying Kalief's name wherever the convention is. He could've made a phone call. He never seemed interested. To me, that was disingenuous.

Do you think that's happened a lot with the city? On one end, you have the city being skeptical of Kalief in court, and then, on another, the mayor is referring to Kalief's death.
Some of it has been disingenuous. Just admit what you did, accept responsibility, and let this kid move on with his life. Then he takes his life, and the mayor comes out. But Mayor de Blasio wasn't running Rikers Island when Kalief was in there; it was [Michael] Bloomberg. The mayor has done a couple of good things; he appointed a new Commissioner, which was needed. But the mayor comes out and says, "We send our condolences to his family. And we need more mental health workers." Like, really? Are you fucking kidding me? Why are you conveniently changing the topic? It's not about mental health workers. Reprimand whoever's responsible for what happened. Stand up and be a leader.

I think it's definitely shedding light on people in jail, though. Because most people assume people in jail did something wrong. Now people have some awareness, like, shit, 85 percent of these people are innocent, and just accused of a crime. They just have discretion to treat them like that. It doesn't make sense.

With this criminal justice conversation going on, and it seems like we're ready to have it—it's been leading up to it for decades, honestly—what do you think we have learned as a city from Kalief's death? Or, better yet, about the system that put him in this situation?
I think most would admit it's problematic, to say the least. People are almost always in agreement that there are too many people in jail. Absolutely. But jail isn't always the solution; there are other alternatives out there. I think people appreciate that concept more. People make mistakes, but they don't need to be in the system for that long. Especially for nonviolent crimes. People just have a better awareness of things—it's not all about police brutality, law enforcement, and issues like that. It's the entire system. Just go up to the Bronx Criminal Court. Every day, all of these people have to go to court, sit on that line. They're not in jail, but they're going to court every month for a long time. It's a lot. For what? What kind of cases are they?

Kalief made it much more human for me. It put a face on it for me. It's just like, you still gotta pick up the pieces. Even after he took his life, we spoke about it for a week in the news, and then it was gone. I was talking to my friends and was like, "What the fuck? That's it. It's over?" We need to get out there about reforms. You need to pick up the pieces, and make sure people don't forget about it. It's at the forefront right now. Everything's almost led up to this. And his death is like the climax.

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