Kalief Browder would have turned 23 years old today. In June 2015, just after his birthday, he killed himself. He was back at his mother's house in the Bronx after spending three years in pre-trial detention at Rikers Island, New York City's notorious prison complex, for allegedly stealing a backpack and because he couldn't afford the $3,000 cash bail. Two of those years were in solitary confinement. Browder was 16 when he was arrested, was never convicted of a crime, and the charges against him were dismissed.
Browder's death was the culmination of years of abuse in the prison system. There are multiple videos of him being beaten and choked by guards and other inmates. Still a teenager, he encountered some of the harshest aspects of the criminal justice system: a cash bail policy that means a disproportionate number of low-income people of color spend time in jail before they're even convicted of crime, New York City's incarceration of minors in adult prisons, and the abuse of solitary confinement. In January last year, Rikers ended the practice of sending kids under 21 to solitary.
I spoke to Browder's older brother Akeem, 33, a software engineer and now an activist for criminal justice reform. He's holding a memorial Wednesday, and has been rallying to get Rikers shut down since his brother's death.
This interview has been edited and re-arranged for clarity.
What has it been like for your family since Kalief died?
We’re all affected by this. I take a stance where I couldn’t afford to stay depressed. Within the first month I was really out of it, because we’ve never had anyone die in our family. He was the first one, and he happens to be the youngest one of all of us. So no-one expected it. I mean who expects death, especially coming from a young one? It hit us hard and I was depressed in the beginning. But seeing my mom depressed, and I was depressed, and I’m close to my mom–it’s like I couldn’t let both of us be depressed. So I had to be active and I had to develop a different mentality. Like, no, you know what? Someone has to be strong and hold the system accountable for what they do.
How are you trying to hold the system accountable?
I was already part of a group called “Why Accountability” in which we hold the police department accountable in our communities. When Kalief got released, and after everything happened with him, I got together with a bunch of grass roots organizations that also decided that enough is enough [from the justice system]. I already had a stake in it, but now it was personal to me.
After all this is done I have appointments with my therapist. But I’m trying to harden myself to the loss that my family just suffered. There are times I can’t even help it, I end up breaking down because I can’t handle it. I miss my brother, man.
You set up an organization called Campaign to Shut Down Rikers. Do you think shutting down Rikers will prevent another kid from going through what your brother went through?
It’s not just the action of shutting down Rikers. The point of shutting it down is not to see new jails rise. Dade County and Albany are doing it differently, they’re lowering the numbers significantly in their prisons that eventually they can shut them down.
An organization called LEAD is making a difference in Albany, New York. They’re acting as advocates and sending people straight to programs and services that can help them instead of sending them to jail when they’ve committed a minor crime.
Do you think all prisons should be shut down?
Obviously there are violent criminals who need to be segregated and put in some kind of treatment where they’re reprimanded and then treated for whatever mental illness they have, if they have one. But people are not guilty until proven guilty. And the answer to that is, if they are guilty, find out why people are committing crimes.
The New York Senate introduced Kalief’s Law last year to speed up the process of bringing people to trial and to set a time limit on how long people can be held on pre-trial detention without a case being brought against them. Why do you think it hasn’t been passed yet?
You’ve got people who just don’t care about human life. They value currency more than they value human life. So that’s the reason why my brother’s bill is not getting passed. These DAs are playing a loop system that keep people like Kalief behind bars for three years. For three years a child’s life got taken away for allegedly stealing a backpack. And then to just send him home like "Oh sorry we got the wrong person." But the three years of your life you just missed. Four birthdays. You would think they would say, "Oh my god! You know what, you’re right, let’s do something about this." But no, they say not enough money has been raised. What does money have to do with the cost of a human life?
What was it like when Kalief was in Rikers for those three years?
I was actually working as an engineer for the Department of Corrections on Rikers when my brother was arrested. I saw him there and he called my name. I had to flinch every time he called my name, because I was like, man, I’m not supposed to have any type of relationship with someone that’s incarcerated there while I’m working there. And then on top of that it was like, oh man, my livelihood could be at risk. So I quit. I just couldn’t take it any more.
What was he like before he was in jail?
He was a normal child. Him and I, we loved Dragon Ball. We both liked the same character, we were both the same. He was my workout partner. The dude had a six pack—no he had an eight pack by the age of eight! He was too young to go to the gym so we would do sit ups in the house or hang off the bed, we literally acted like we were in training for Dragon Ball. It was fun to have him around, because although I have a lot of brothers, certain ones you get along with more. And he was my youngest brother, so I used to play this game with him where I used to act like I was drooling on him, I made up some word like “drooelle” and he would be like “oh no I hate drool, no!” And it was so funny. I can sit back and reminisce on stuff like this but like I’ll never be able to do that with him again.
What was different about Kalief after he left Rikers?
When he came home he wasn’t the same because he went through a life-changing event. They should have sent him home with mental health therapy. They should have sent him home knowing that they did wrong. They literally in court admitted that they couldn’t hold him any longer because they had no evidence against him.
There are so many aspects of this that are foul. That it can happen to a human being period, but that it can happen to a young person who never ever got to enjoy life. When he came home, he said, "I’m messed up. I can’t even function." He was even embarrassed that he was so scared of everything. He was embarrassed that he broke my mother’s TV because he got afraid and paranoid. After that he went upstairs in his room and came back down and he was pissed off at himself that he’d been changed like that.
He would line up on his window sill shampoo bottles and lotion bottles and he would talk to them. That’s what he would do in his jail cell because he didn’t have anyone to talk to for days and weeks. He was in solitary for over 900 days. For a child who’s still developing their mind, that really messes up their psyche. So talking to bottles was his cry for attention. And bottles were the only thing giving him attention at the time in his mind.
Your brother was still alive on his birthday last year, what did you do that day?
We threw a birthday party for him but he didn’t want it. What he ended up doing was he ended up buying my nieces and nephews presents. He was so incredible. You took a kid who didn’t have anything. He didn’t even have a job. But when he came home he realized that mommy didn’t have the finances and it’s our jobs when you grow up to now take care of your parents. However when he came out of jail he had the body of a grown man but he didn’t know how to have a job, or get the experience. So he was kind of at a standstill.
But then he went on that interview with Oprah who paid him like $23,000 and it just shows the kind of kid he was that he gave that money to my mom and only took for himself the things he needed: he bought himself clothes. He literally bought like five outfits and he thought that was the world, he thought that was a lot, and a TV and a laptop. Oh yeah and he bought my nieces and nephews toys—their house is so flooded it’s ridiculous. He didn’t need the money.
There’s a lawsuit that’s still ongoing with your family suing the City of New York. What are you looking for with that lawsuit, and what’s the status of it right now?
I don’t care about the money. My brother’s life is gone. Their offer on the table is $20 million. First of all, they wrote us a check that said, "From the people of the State of New York." That came out of our taxes to pay for my brother’s death. If each state-run company or department has a reserve budget, why can’t they use their reserves from the Department Of Corrections, or from the justice system, or even the NYPD, instead of that state money from our taxes?
My mother doesn’t want to accept that the people of New York are giving her this money. Everyone feels for her story because she’s a mother who lost her kid, who she adopted at that foster care. To lose the youngest one, that takes a toll. And the minimal justice would be someone taking responsibility, saying "Miss Browder, or the Browder family, I was the one taking your son’s life." She could at least have someone to be angry at. She could at least be like, this mothereffer took my son’s life. But right now, she’s like, which mothereffer took my son’s life. It’s like, which one did it, who’s responsible?
And who do you think is responsible?
He took his life through suicide, but it was really the years that he was on Rikers being tortured that took his life. And it’s the officers who beat him. We have video of it.
What do you want people to remember today, on what would have been Kalief’s 23rd birthday?
I don’t want anyone thinking Kalief is an exception—he’s an individual to my family, but he’s not an individual to the system. I want his story to stay a thorn in the side of the Department of Corrections and the Department of Justice. And I want Kalief to have a day in his honor. Martin Luther King represented all the blacks in America and by him speaking out and then giving him a day they said, you know what, they won, give them something. Kalief represents all the kids of America being oppressed and deprived of life and freedom and liberty. I want the same for my brother.