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The case for shutting down New York City’s Rikers Island jail

Kalief Browder killed himself after 33 months in Rikers Island. Now his brother is pushing to shut down the jail.

Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name as they rally near the gate of New York City Hall in February 2016.
Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder and a friend were walking home from a party in May 2010 when they were stopped by police officers, who were responding to a 911 call and arrested Browder for allegedly stealing a backpack. The two teenagers ended up in a holding cell in the 48th Precinct, and Browder was eventually charged with grand larceny. He spent the next three years imprisoned in Rikers Island, awaiting a trial that never came, including 18 months in solitary confinement. A video from the New Yorker reveals that he was beaten by officers during his time at the prison.

In 2013, Browder was released on the grounds of lack of evidence. On June 6, 2015, at home in the Bronx, he killed himself.

Since then, Browder’s brother, Akeem Browder, has been on a mission to reform New York’s prison system. He started a grassroots campaign to shut down Rikers, founded the Kalief Browder Foundation to further that cause, and ran for New York mayor last year as a Green Party candidate, in part to raise awareness about the importance of prison reform. (New York state has also announced plans to shut down the prison on a 10-year timeline.) In his mayoral campaign, Browder was open about his personal experience with the criminal justice system — he was imprisoned for a year and a half for burglary and identity theft, and pleaded guilty to a sex offense charge.

Wednesday marks three years since Kalief’s suicide. His story has attracted national attention, including inspiring a documentary series partly produced by Jay-Z called The Kalief Browder Story. I spoke to Akeem about what he sees wrong with Rikers Island and the New York prison system, and the importance of mental health services, among other topics. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hope Reese

What did your brother’s arrest and experience at Rikers expose about the justice system in New York?

Akeem Browder

We already know that the justice system is biased and leans in favor of those that have the finances to have better representation, or at least proper representation. If you come from a poor, disenfranchised, typically black and brown community, we don’t get the same kind of justice. It’s cruel to think that a monetary amount would [determine] whether you are a better person or not in the eyes of the law.

Hope Reese

Why shut down Rikers, which your organization Shut Down Rikers pushes for, instead of reform it?

Akeem Browder

[The New York government] is saying that it’s going to take a lot of money to shut down a jail. I’d argue that it would actually save a lot of money. But why is the focus on resources rather than the fact that this is a human rights violation?

We, the taxpayers, are presumably paying for the inmates’ food. Yet some of them are going a week without food. Kalief went days between meals, and they weren’t big meals. He would tell us when we visited him — they would starve him and then give him a tray of just cabbage and bread.

“Reform” indicates that we have a working system and we just need to make some changes. But the whole concept of caging human beings that are innocent until proven guilty shouldn’t sit right. It’s not like we’ve been doing this incarceration for just a few months or even a decade. We’ve been doing [mass incarceration] for more than a century. And it still isn’t working.

On top of that, we want to reduce the risk of needing to arrest [people] for frivolous, low-level violations, or “technical violations,” as they call it. ’Cause most of the people who are in Rikers are people who reoffended, meaning they have a technical violation — they were probably on parole or missed curfew.

New York’s crime rate isn’t high. How do we move from a society of people who just wants to punish to a society of people that wants to correct and rehabilitate?

Hope Reese

What about mental health services for prisoners? What kind of treatment did Kalief get in prison and afterward? What could [better treatment] have meant for your brother?

Akeem Browder

My brother didn’t deserve to be on Rikers for such a low-level offense. Even if he did allegedly take the book bag, he 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. He shouldn’t have been detained and held in the Guantanamo Bay of New York while he’s a teen.

So the anguish that he suffered on Rikers — the torment, the solitary confinement for 18 months straight — that kind of torture deserves rehabilitation and attention toward his psyche. When he was released, they gave him zero help. I’m not talking about the celebrities that helped; I’m not talking about the people that gathered around him to get [him] back into school and motivate him to get his GED and then continue toward college.

The people came together, but the government should’ve stepped up because it was their fault. They were to blame. And when someone’s to blame, they should be held accountable for their wrongdoing. But the city of New York and the Justice Department have held nobody accountable.

Kalief needed therapy, counseling. If you’re in solitary confinement, you’re taken away from things that are normal for the body to relate to. He needed something to acclimate himself back to society. But he didn’t even get that. And the government literally dropped the ball and said, “It’s not our problem. We had the right to do this.”

Hope Reese

Kalief was very open with his story, allowing the New Yorker to publish video footage from the prison. What are the best strategies for activists or prisoners who would like to expose what’s going on inside jails and prisons?

Akeem Browder

No matter what, we have the power to vote people out of office when we don’t feel like they’re doing their civic duty. But that’s hard to know if you’re constantly trying to make the rent.

We’re not, here in New York state, making voting day accessible to poor communities all. It’s available to those that have one job, or those who can take off because they don’t need the money as much — not for a person that is struggling with two jobs and kids that they have to go home to.

When I was running for mayor, I wanted to change voting day from Tuesday to a weekend day, when the majority of the people have off. It could be a civic day of engagement for your entire family. And that’s what builds communities.

Hope Reese

What kind of legislative actions could happen in New York state that would help address the problem of racial profiling? And what do you think about attempts to train police departments in that area?

Akeem Browder

My best friend is a sergeant of the 42nd Precinct. The training she gets [tells her to] take someone down, ask questions later.

I had a sit-down with the commissioner of the police department, who literally told me that [the] officers are only doing what the law says. Now, I know to listen for the BS and read between the lines of what he says, but what he’s saying is if you want someone to be allowed to smoke weed on the street, you have to change the law so we don’t have to arrest them.

But we already have laws against what they did to Kalief, but they weren’t followed. What has to happen is we need to hold these officers accountable.

Hope Reese

The issue of reforming prisons is personal for you. What does it feel like to be talking to me about this three years after your brother’s death?

Akeem Browder

There’s an aspect of this that’s personal. I lost my youngest brother. Then I also lost my mother [who died of a heart attack in 2016]. Taking a mother out of a family, taking a woman that’s raising a child out of a family before it’s their time, it made me understand how important it is to bring the help that women need because they’re raising us.

My mother did a hell of a job bringing in 11 adopted kids and raising 32 foster care children. Then she went through the torment of watching her kid suffer in a facility that she couldn’t afford to get her child out of. It changed my perspective. What are we doing to our families?

It’s been three years. We’ve put forward three laws in the state of New York — on speedy trial reform, discovery reform, and no-cash bail reform [which gets rid of cash bail for non-felony crimes] — and yet not one of them has been done. We all deserve fair and equal justice, but we, the people, know that our elected officials, the governor, the mayor — apparently since they don’t live in our communities and don’t make the same money that we make — they don’t understand, or they don’t want to understand, what it is that we go through.

It’s hard to see, but I believe in the power of the people gathering to make that difference and to elevate Kalief’s story.

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.