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To Plea or Not to Plea: The Kalief Browder Experience

On May 10, 2010, Kalief Browder was heading home in the Bronx, after attending a party. While walking home, he was stopped by two police officers. The officers explained to Browder they had a victim in their squad car that identified the teen as being the person who robbed him. Kalief Browder was told by the police they were going to take him to the precinct where he would be questioned, then released, and able to go home. This was a partial truth, as Browder was released three years later!

The then 16-year old was accused of robbing the victim and stealing his backpack, which contained a camera, $700, a credit card, and iPod Touch. After being transported to the 48th Precinct in the Bronx, New York, Browder was fingerprinted and placed in a holding cell. Seventeen hours later, Browder was in the interrogation room. He was questioned by a police officer and a prosecutor for approximately three minutes. The next day Browder was charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. Bail was set at $3,000, but his family didn’t have the funds needed. As a result Browder became an inmate at the notorious Rikers Island.

Watching someone get assaulted was part of a normal day in this hostile environment. Multiple inmates became victims as they suffered broken jaws, bloodied noses, and broken bones. Five months into his unofficial stay, a gang member spat in Browder’s face. The teenager responded by punching the gang member. The gang members retaliated with numbers. Fifteen gang members proceeded to punch and kick Kalief Browder. After being rescued from the attack by correctional officers, Browder was placed in an isolation cell. It proved to be temporary relief as the gang members barged into the isolation cell, and started beating on Browder once again.

During the gang incident, the correctional officers were allies of Kalief Browder, but in other cases, they were his enemies. In one incident caught on video, Browder was being escorted by a correctional officer to the prison shower. After verbally saying something to the prison guard, Browder was slammed to the floor, beaten, and placed in solitary confinement. While in solitary confinement, the prison guards controlled when and if Browder could eat a meal. At times the teen would miss four meals before being rewarded with something to eat.  

During his stay in Rikers, Browder wasn’t officially convicted of a crime, but for some odd reason, his court dates kept being postponed. It has been speculated the postponements were due to the fact they were expecting Kalief Browder to take a plea deal. Browder’s pride wouldn’t allow him to accept a plea deal. “I was told if I plead guilty I would be released from jail, but I didn’t do it. You’re not going to make me say I did something so I can go home,” Browder stated during an interview with ABC News.

With no conviction, and no solid trial date in sight, Kalief Browder would go on to serve 1110 days behind bars. He spent a total of 800 of those days in solitary confinement.

With the combination of a hostile environment, stress, solitary confinement, and his court date being postponed 31 times, mental trauma developed rapidly. Despite telling correctional officers he needed mental help and he felt as though he needs someone to talk to, Browder wasn’t given the assistance he requested. During his stay in prison, Browder attempted suicide on six separate occasions.

He spoke about one of his suicide attempts during the before mentioned interview with ABC News. “I ripped up my bed sheets and made a noose out of it. I tied the sheet to a light fixture from the ceiling and tried to take my life,” Browder stated. His suicide attempt was interrupted when correctional officers entered his cell to end the attempt.

Finally after three years of never being convicted of a crime and never receiving a proper trial, Kalief Browder’s case was dismissed in June 2013. After his release Browder passed the G.E.D. Exam. He would go on to enroll at the Bronx Community College.

Even though it appeared he was putting his terrible past experience behind him, Browder continued to struggle with stress, mental anguish, and depression. “Before I went to jail I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid. I feel like I was robbed of my childhood and my happiness.”

Kalief Browder couldn’t regain his childhood or his happiness as he committed suicide by way of hanging himself with an air conditioning chord outside his bedroom window on June 11, 2015. He was 22 years old. The tragic story captured the hearts of many people across the country. It even caught the attention of a well known hip-hop mogul,Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, who became one of the executive producers in a six episode documentary about the life of Kalief Browder.

The Kalief Browder story helped expose the troubled judicial system, violence in life behind bars, and the paranoia solitary confinement can cause within a person. For the reason of being falsely arrested, maliciously prosecuted, and denied a speedy trial, the family of Kalief Browder was awarded a settlement of $3.3 million dollars in January of 2019.

Kalief Browder is a hero, because he stood by what he believed in. He could have taken the easy way out and took the plea deal, but his pride and his purpose wouldn’t allow him. His self sacrifice helped expose multiple flaws in the judiciary system and bring a lot of the darkness in Rikers Island to the light.



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