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How Kalief Browder's Legacy Is Propelling Criminal Justice Reform Forward

On the second anniversary of Kalief's death, Akeem Browder speaks with ESSENCE about how his brother's story is transforming the criminal justice system.

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Two years after Kalief Browder’s death, the broken criminal justice system that imprisoned and tortured him at just 16 years old is making strides to undergo reform.

That transformation would be a slower process had Browder’s haunting story not come to light. Jailed at Rikers Island for three years after he was accused of stealing a backpack, Browder’s short life can serve as a highlight reel for the injustices of the system; the abuse from correctional officers, overcrowding at the mismanaged prison complex, solitary confinement and the fight to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York state.

Browder was never convicted of a crime, and on June 6, 2015, two years after he was released, the 22-year-old Bronx native took his own life.

But as these reforms continue to garner support — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once called the plan unrealistic, proposed shutting the doors to Rikers Island in March and Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed legislation to raise the age into law — it’s the idea to overhaul a system that aided in Browder’s mental decline, according to his brother Akeem Browder, that will make the most effective change. That’s the goal of the Kalief Browder Foundation, which Akeem co-created to carry on the legacy of his brother.

“He’s a kid that was my brother. He still is. I live to keep his legacy alive,” Akeem told ESSENCE on the second anniversary of his death.

“Kalief was certainly a normal family member before he went to jail. No one’s realizing the uniqueness of being in jail and the conditions of being in jail, like solitary confinement, or what they did to Kalief. Like, teach him to commit suicide.”

Browder spent 800 of his 1,000 days on Rikers Island locked away in solitary confinement. During that time, he was reportedly physically and mentally abused by guards, starved and neglected. He was also diagnosed with multiple personality syndrome that was medicinally treated by physicians with the use of Risperdal. The dosage of that drug, according to Akeem, was not supposed to be given to someone Browder’s age. 

In addition to addressing recidivism and pushing for the right to a speedy trial, a large part of the Foundation’s mission is to address the mental health issues that arise when enduring the unique circumstances of incarceration.

“To understand that those that are impacted in the unique way that is only common to people behind the walls of incarceration, unlike post-traumatic stress from military personnel or in circumstances of Natural Disasters, Child Abuse or any of its wide spectrum; humans in captivity suffer unique symptoms that We Demand treatment to be specific to their trauma,” the website reads, touting the Kalief Browder Success Act.

For Akeem, who says he is running for mayor of New York City this November, it’s all the Foundation can do to prevent another young man or woman from taking their life due to their experience in the criminal justice system.

“His hurt became our mission. We want to remember Kalief.”

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