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New York’s justice system failed Kalief Browder. Now the city will pay his family $3.3 million.

Browder’s incarceration and 2015 suicide called national attention to the ways the justice system irreparably alters the lives of people of color.

A protester holds a symbolic coffin in memory of Kalief Browder during a 2016 protest in New York City.
A protester holds a symbolic coffin in memory of Kalief Browder during a 2016 protest in New York City.
Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

In 2015, Kalief Browder, a young black man, died by suicide after spending years in pretrial detention and solitary confinement on New York’s Rikers Island. More than three years after his death, his estate will receive a settlement from New York City.

On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the city is currently finalizing a $3.3 million settlement with Browder’s family. “Kalief Browder’s story helped inspire numerous reforms to the justice system to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again,” the city’s law department said in a statement. “We hope that this settlement and our continuing reforms help bring some measure of closure to the Browder family.”

In 2010, Browder, then 16, was with a friend when they were arrested and accused of stealing a man’s backpack. Browder denied the charges, but he was on probation for a previous incident and was sent to the Rikers Island jail complex to await trial. Browder’s family could not initially afford the $3,000 bail needed to secure his release — and by the time they managed to raise the money, a judge ruled that Browder was no longer eligible.

Browder continued to stress his innocence as he remained behind bars for three years, more than half of which was spent in solitary confinement. After years of his case being dragged out in the Bronx court system without a trial, a judge dismissed all charges against Browder in 2013. Two years later, the 22-year-old died by suicide outside his mother’s home.

Browder’s imprisonment and death drew national attention, and spurred calls for policy reform in New York, fueling efforts to mitigate the harm of incarceration on young adults and highlighting the damaging effects of solitary confinement. While the settlement this week marks the latest step New York City officials have taken to atone for Browder’s death, the city has been criticized for moving away from other reforms it once promised.

Kalief Browder’s death fueled a national discussion about race, criminal justice, and juvenile punishment

Browder began calling for criminal justice reform in New York shortly after his release in 2013, arguing that his case pointed to a number of problems in the city’s criminal justice system, ranging from the failure to provide people with a speedy trial to the use of solitary confinement on people under 21 to the unnecessary complexities of the bail system.

His story was widely publicized in a 2014 New Yorker article, but attention increased after his death and the release of a high-profile documentary about Browder in 2017. Coming in the midst of growing national attention to police violence against African Americans, the story of Browder’s long incarceration and mistreatment at Rikers (he told the New Yorker he was beaten by guards and other prisoners when he was not in solitary confinement) was seen as another example of how the justice system irreparably alters the lives of people of color.

The sudden death of Browder’s mother, Venida, in 2016 also served as a powerful illustration of the ways this trauma further devastates black families.

New York City officials have regularly pointed to Browder’s case when discussing reform efforts in the city. In December 2014, just months before Browder’s death, Rikers Island stopped placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement. One month later, in January 2015, city officials announced that solitary confinement would no longer be used on individuals ages 21 and under.

“The death of Kalief Browder was a wake-up call to this city,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in 2017. “His death shook the whole city and opened everyone’s eyes and made people think twice.”

These reforms have been praised, but there have been some complications to the city’s efforts. Last July, the New York Times reported that while New York City was no longer putting minors in solitary confinement at Rikers, it was allowing people younger than 22 to be transferred to upstate jails that use solitary confinement. More details emerged after young inmates filed a lawsuit in December 2018 saying they were held in isolation and abused after being transferred out of Rikers.

Last September, Politico reported that the city had moved away from efforts to keep 18- to 21-year-olds in Rikers housed separately from the adult general population. The city countered that the move was part of an effort to begin to reduce the city’s jail population, adding that in some cases, young adults should be housed with older individuals.

Browder’s surviving family members, for their part, argue that the city has not fully honored its stated commitment to reform. Browder’s older brother Akeem, a former mayoral candidate, continues to call for the immediate closure of the Rikers Island complex (which the city has said it plans to close by 2027).

Kalief “didn’t belong in a place like Rikers, detained from having his high school graduation, detained from being present to see my [other] brother bring his two kids into this world and become an uncle,” Akeem Browder told Vox last year. “ He shouldn’t have been detained and held in the Guantanamo Bay of New York while he’s a teen.”

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