The Backpack that Took a Life


credit via The New Yorker

Romeo Sharpe, Staff Writer

Imagine spending the rest of your teenage years in jail.

Well, that is what 16-year-old Kalief Browder experienced firsthand in 2010.


Kalief Browder committed suicide on June 2015 after spending 3 years at one the worst institutions in the world, Rikers Island in New York City. Browder spent majority of that time spent in solitary confinement.


On May 15, 2010, Browder and his friend were coming back from a party when they were suddenly stopped by police. In the state of New York, a law was passed to where cops could do a procedure called  “stop-and-frisk,” the practice of temporarily detaining, questioning, and at times searching civilians on the street for weapons and other contraband. On that warm night, Browder and his friend thought it was a routine stop-and-frisk but the cops had different intentions.


Browder and his friend were both arrested and taken to the 48th precinct after being accused of stealing a backpack. They were both put in holding. That same night they were taken to Central Booking at the Bronx County Criminal Court. As Browder’s friends were released, he was kept because he was on probation from an earlier incident in his life. He was ordered by the judge to be held during the case. He was charged with second degree robbery and a bail of 3,000 dollars, which his family could not come up with. He was finally sent to Rikers Island on the department of correction bus. 


Photo via ABC News

During this time at Rikers Island, the conditions were gruesome. In an interview with Jennifer Gonnerman, journalist for The New Yorker, Browder gave explicit details on his first full day, explaining,  “ They’re talking to us about why did we jump these guys,” he said. “And as they’re talking they’re punching us one by one.” He had no part in the fight but was still beaten by police anyways. After the fact that he was beaten, the cops gave him a choice on whether or not he wanted to go to the clinic or not.


He further explained, “ I’ll act like nothing happened”  because if he were to go and tell what had happened then officers would press a charge on the inmates.


On July 10th, by this time he was in Rikers Island for 74 days without being convicted, Browder returned to the courtroom. To his astonishment, Browder was accused of punching and shoving one of the officers. He plead not guilty and was sent back to Rikers Island. By January 2011, Browder return to court. By that time, he already spent over 250 days without being convicted. A potential trial was placed but the prosecution requested an additional week. By that time, there were backlogging of cases in Brooklyn. The one week requested turned into six weeks. This pattern continued for the rest of 2011 and onto the year of 2012


After many failed attempts with his trial and denying plea deals, Browder was starting to feel mentally unstable. He got into many fights with other inmates and was sent to solitary confinement. During his time at Rikers Island, Browder was in solitary confinement for 800 days. He once spent 17 straight months in solitary confinement. While he was in solitary confinement he attempted suicide on numerous occasion. In an interview with ABC’s The View, Browder recalled a disgusting moment  during one of his attempts, “I just remember the officer saying “Go ahead and jump, you got it ready, right, go ahead and jump. If you don’t jump, we’re going to go in there anyway.” 

© The View
Photo via The View


After spending 1,000 days at Rikers Island, 800 of that 1,000 days in solitary confinement, after appearing in front of 9 different judges, on May 29 2013, at the age of 20, Kalief Browder was released.


Upon his release, however, Browder lost interest in all of his hobbies. His confidence was diminished. Furthermore into his interview with Gonnerman, he shed more light on his mental status, “ People tell me because I have this case against the city I’m all right. But I’m not alright. I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that’s not going to help me mentally. I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back.”


He goes more in depth when he says, “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 happiness.”

Photo via Spike

Months after his release, Browder attempted to commit suicide. He was in-and-out of psychiatric hospitals.


On November 2013, after being turned down by 11 attorneys, Browder and his brother, Akeem, filed a lawsuit against the New York justice system with the help of attorney Paul V. Prestia. No personal progress was made for Browder until January of 2015 when New York lawmakers unanimously voted to end solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 21.


Photo via Daily New York

Conditions were looking promising for Browder as he went to college and working towards getting his GED, but on June 5 2015, Browder was acting strange. He went up to his mom, Venida Browder, and told her, “Mom I can’t take it anymore.”

The next day around noon, Browder committed suicide by hanging himself.


This tragic event led to many changes in the state of New York and the whole entire country. There were also several peaceful protest in remembrance of Kalief  Browder.


On January 25, 2016, former President Barack Obama signed an executive order to ban solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, among other prison reforms.

On March 31, 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to close down Riker’s Island jail facility in the following statement: “New York City will close the Rikers Island jail facility. It will take many years. It will take many tough decisions. But it will happen.”


As for Browder’s lawsuit, it has hit a brick wall at this moment as his mother, Venida, who was continuing the lawsuit for him, died on October of 2016 due to a broken heart.  To this day, his brother, Akeem, has yet to given up on the lawsuit as he must go through the paperwork and process of claiming the settlement.