As a twenty-year-old only recently freed from New York's Rikers Island after three years without a trial or being convicted of a crime, Kalief Browder seemed to exhibit a stark awareness of what had already been lost. “You just took three years of my life,” he said in a 2013 interview, addressing a dysfunctional criminal justice system he’d had the misfortune of being swept up in. “I didn’t get to go to prom or graduation. Nothing. Those are the main years. … And I am never going to get those years back. Never. Never.” What, tragically, he also appears to have been robbed of was the hope that something could yet be found. After several hospitalizations and multiple suicide attempts following his release, Browder hanged himself on Saturday. He was twenty-two.
Browder's story became widely known thanks mainly to the reporting of The New Yorker's Jennifer Gonnerman, who in October 2014 detailed an ordeal that began with his arrest on suspicion of stealing a backpack from someone on a Bronx street. But "ordeal" seems like an inadequate word for what followed (see Gonnerman's piece for the full account), which was basically the disappearing of an apparently innocent teenager, unable to make bail much less pay for competent representation, for more than a thousand days.
Much of that time was spent in solitary confinement, which as Derek S. Jeffreys wrote in Commonweal and penal scholars have noted, "does serious damage to inmates and exacts a steep moral cost" with little evidence that it achieves its stated goals. Gonnerman quotes the former executive director of mental health for New York City’s jails, who of locking people alone inside their cells said, "Adolescents can’t handle it. Nobody could handle that." New York City ended solitary confinement for sixteen- and seventeen-year olds in December, citing its impact on mental stability.
Too late for Browder, who was an adolescent when he was placed in Rikers -- not yet seventeen. In solitary, he was beaten by guards; outside, he was beaten by other inmates. In April, with Browder's permission, Gonnerman posted a pair of surveillance-camera video clips capturing the violence against him. It's disturbing footage by any measure, but Browder's evident youth and essential defenselessness make it even harder to watch. The media favors formulations like "every day was a daily fight for survival," which in this case is not inaccurate. Browder described life inside Rikers to that reporter in 2013 simply as "very scary." It wasn't just understatement. The fear tracked him back into the world, and continued to haunt him.
In commenting on Browder's experience last fall, Mollie Wilson O'Reilly wrote that his wrongful imprisonment was bad enough, and his abusive treatment even worse. "That the person suffering it is a teenager, on the cusp of adulthood, is worse still," she continued. "Worst of all is knowing that the negative effects of those injustices will be with Browder for a lifetime. How does a young man begin to rebuild his life after being thrown so roughly off course?" We know still more now -- like how the effects of such injustices can alter our notion of what counts as a "lifetime," and how this might seem to make moot any questions about how to envision one. If that seems despairing, Mollie's final question still obtains, suggesting there's an answer still in need of finding. "And what can the rest of us do about it, now that we know?" she asked. What can the rest of us do about it now, now that we've know exactly what it did to Kalief Browder?