Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack, according to the New Yorker, which originally told his story in the magazine last fall. His family couldn't afford his $10,000 bail, so he was detained on Rikers Island for three years awaiting trial. During his time at Rikers, he allegedly was forced to endure two years in solitary confinement, according to the New Yorker. The case was eventually dismissed, but Browder struggled to get his life together. He committed suicide Saturday, and his family is asking that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio quickly institute the reforms that he proposed for Rikers Island so that no one will have to endure what Browder did. There are a number of ways you can help Kalief Browder and the cause to reform Rikers Island polices and treatment of prisoners as well as to reform the justice system of New York.
During his time at Rikers, Browder refused a number of plea deals because he insisted that he was innocent. He claimed to Jennifer Gonnerman, who reported his story for the New Yorker, that he was beaten repeatedly by officers and inmates on Rikers. Gonnerman eventually obtained disturbing surveillance of Browder being assaulted by an officer and then being pummeled and kicked by a group of inmates. Browder's lawyer, Paul V. Prestia, who was representing Browder in a case against various city and government officials, said Browder told the Los Angeles Times that Browder was also allegedly starved and prohibited from bathing for two weeks at a time. All of these things contributed to his mental deterioration, which he struggled to overcome after his release.
Unfortunately, New York state senators have noted that Browder's case isn't an outlier. The L.A. Times said that after Browder's story was released, senators took up prison reform and pointed to a 2013 report that says the median time it took to resolve criminal cases in the Bronx was 517 days. Browder's family released a statement to the L.A. Times, which said that he was "ultimately was unable to overcome his own pain and torment, which emanated from his experiences in solitary confinement":
We ask the public to respect our privacy during this very difficult time, and we pray that Kalief’s death will not be in vain. We ask that the mayor and every public official in New York City take every action possible to ensure that no other person in New York City will ever again be forced to live through all that Kalief endured.
Here are four things you can do to help push government officials to reform the justice system in New York and the policies on Rikers Island.
Write To Mayor Bill de Blasio Asking Him To Enforce Rules For Guards
The New York Times conducted an investigation, published in February, which claimed that prison "reforms" aren't really being taken seriously by guards. The Times found that most guards don't follow the rules when punishing prisoners:
Seventy percent of the 62 beatings examined by The Times resulted in head injuries, even though department policies direct guards to avoid blows to the head unless absolutely necessary. And more than half the inmates sustained broken bones. In October, a typical month, one inmate had his jaw shattered by a guard after being handcuffed and led into an elevator; another had his arm broken while handcuffed; and a third had three teeth knocked out. The Times also identified 30 episodes from August to January in which officers suffered serious injuries in altercations with inmates. While most of the inmates involved sustained head injuries, nearly half the guards fractured bones in their hands and fingers, often after striking inmates in the head.
De Blasio proposed a number of reforms to help with court delays and the backlogs of cases in New York, which contribute to prisoners being detained for extended periods, but there isn't anything about enforcing rules for guards within Rikers. You can contact the mayor through this web page. Tell him what you find appalling about Browder's case and how it's not unique. Tackling court delays are important for inmates who shouldn't be detained, but even the ones who are being rightfully detained shouldn't be mistreated in the way Browder was.
Voice Your Support For Browder's Family
Whether it's through an open letter on your blog, or a long-winded Facebook post, calling attention to what Browder went through on a public scale will only help inform more people about the issue. If you have any kind of public reach — through Twitter, an art project, your work with a nonprofit — you could only help the problem get more attention, which helps pressure government officials to act and shut you up.
If You Live In New York, Organize A Protest
Public protest is the easiest way to garner support for a cause. Reforming the New York criminal justice system is going to be a difficult thing for people to rally behind for one reason: It can be kind of boring. (I don't hold this belief. Justice is super important to me.) But stories like Browder's are what will help people who wouldn't normally want to learn about the issue become more interested.
Volunteer With A Nonprofit In Criminal Justice Reform
If you really want to help make an impact, then volunteer with a local criminal justice reform nonprofit. Most of these organizations are doing a lot of the heavy lifting and lobbying behind politicians and the reforms they propose. The Vera Institute of Justice operates out of New York and helps make justice systems fairer and more effective through research and innovation, according its website.
Are you into Orange Is The New Black? Who isn't? There's a great list of volunteer organizations on Piper Kerman's website that is sure to get you pumped up for justice. She features organizations specific to women and larger groups like The Innocence Project. Whatever you do and however small it may seem, you can feel confident about the fact that you're helping contribute to real reform for people stuck in the system like Browder. The time that you take out of your day could prevent stories like his from having similar, heartbreaking endings.
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