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New Yorkers mourn Kalief Browder’s death

The vigil for Kalief Browder on June 11. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

The vigil for Kalief Browder on June 11. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

New Yorkers rallied in downtown Manhattan and at the entrance to Rikers Island on June 11 to remember a young man who committed suicide recently after being locked up for almost three years without a trial and being subjected to violence, torture and solitary confinement while still a minor in the jail.

“I’m enraged because we have been advocating for years for young people to be removed from the adult facilities,” Carmen Perez, executive director of Gathering for Justice and member of Justice League NY, said. “We need them removed from every adult facility in America. Rikers is no place for children.”

Perez and hundreds of other protesters gathered outside the Manhattan Detention Complex in New York City Thursday evening to pay homage to Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old who recently killed himself after years of mistreatment in jail — and mental illness caused by his mistreatment — made his life unbearable.

Browder, whose story was first reported by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker, had originally been arrested in May 2010, when he was 16 years old, for supposedly robbing someone for a backpack. Browder was charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault but maintained his innocence. He was then sent to Rikers Island, a 413-acre island between Queens and the Bronx and New York City’s main jail complex, since he had already been on probation for joyriding and crashing into a parked car eight months earlier.

Browder then spent about three years in Rikers Island, much of it in solitary confinement, without ever being convicted or even going to trial. Gonnerman obtained footage of Browder being abused by Rikers Island’s prison guards as well as other prisoners there. The abuse and torture were so bad that Browder attempted suicide multiple times while locked up. Throughout his stay at Rikers, Browder also maintained his innocence, even turning down a plea deal that would have gotten him released earlier. When he was finally released in May 2013, Browder had already been indelibly wounded by his experiences inside the jail.

“Being home is way better than being in jail,” Browder told The New Yorker when he was released. “But in my mind right now I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”

After attempting to live a normal life and taking classes at Bronx Community College, mental illness got the best of Browder. In January 2015, Gonnerman visited him and found that he had recently thrown out his new TV out of fear that it was “watching” him. On June 6, Browder hanged himself out of his window with an air conditioner cord.

(WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

(WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

The death spurred outrage and cast a spotlight on Rikers Island’s treatment of inmates. The vigil outside of the Manhattan Detention Center was organized by social justice activist groups, including the Jails Action Coalition and Justice League NY. At the vigil, protesters chanted “Justice for Kalief,” and speakers, including Browder’s brother Akeem, addressed the crowd.

“[Kalief] was strong until the very end. Three years! Three years of incarceration to keep on saying that he’s not guilty, to keep on professing his innocence until the last day, and they just let him go. They just let him go as though their job was done,” Akeem Browder told the crowd. “They killed another black male! That’s what they did.”

Speakers also encouraged attendees to support the “Raise The Age” campaign in order to stop the criminal justice system from treating kids like adults and putting minors in solitary confinement. By the end of the three-hour vigil, the protesters made a makeshift memorial with flowers and signs on the steps of the Manhattan Detention Center.

Another smaller vigil also took place at the entrance to Rikers Island in Queens. At that vigil, dozens of protesters unfurled Black Lives Matter banners and handed out leaflets to people entering and leaving the jail complex.

“We were mourning the loss of Kalief Browder and also calling attention to America’s criminal justice system that preys on the poor and preys on black and brown bodies,” Ted Alexandro, the vigil’s organizer, said. “We felt it was important to be at the gate of Rikers to call attention to the horrific things that are going on there.”

Protesters at both vigils also acknowledged the most recent suicide at the city jail. On June 10, 18-year-old Kenan Davis committed suicide on the same day he was scheduled to see a psychiatrist. NYC’s Department of Investigation released a report on that day criticizing Corizon Health Inc., the company in charge of psychiatric care in Rikers, for creating dangerous conditions in the jail for guards and inmates, removing people from suicide watch too early, and failing to monitor inmates with serious mental illness.

Recent studies have shown a long history of torture and abuse inflicted upon inmates by the guards. A 2014 internal study by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, obtained by the New York Times, showed that 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” in altercations with corrections officers over an 11-month period in 2013. The study found that 77 percent of the “seriously injured” inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis, and five of the 129 inmates were beaten after they attempted to commit suicide. None of the corrections officers were ever prosecuted.

A 2013 study by the NYC Board of Correction reported that 40 percent of the inmates in Rikers are mentally ill and that about half of the people in solitary confinement at any given time are mentally ill. The study also showed that, over the last nine years, as the use of solitary confinement has increased, so has violence by corrections officers.

More demonstrations are set for the near-future to protest the conditions at Rikers Island with Jails Action Coalition set to hold a vigil in Union Square on June 16 and a “Resist Rikers” rally happening at Rikers’ entrance at the end of the month.