Why we need to remember Kalief Browder

Note: This article discusses themes of suicide and police abuse.

On Sunday, Kalief Browder took his own life.

You may have first heard about Kalief Browder last April, after the New Yorker obtained exclusive footage of the then teenager being beaten by prison guards and fellow inmates during his three-year stay in prison.

Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, you say? Well, that doesn’t apply to Browder’s ordeal. Despite being held in custody at Rikers Island for more than three years, Browder was never convicted of a crime. On May 15, 2010, he and a friend were returning home from a party in the Bronx when they were accused of robbery, grand larceny, and assault—all without having a single specific detail of those charges provided to them. Because Browder was still on probation from an previous (and notably non-violent) incident, he was unable to afford the judge’s bail.

Although he was released once it became clear that the City of New York lacked the case to try him, Browder’s mental health was ruined from his wrongful incarceration. He tried to take his own life several times. As Jennifer Gonnerman of the New Yorker describes, this included several attempts during his two years spent in solitary confinement, as well as one in November 2013, six months after he left Rikers.

What lessons can we learn from Browder’s story?

First, we need to spread awareness of the dangers of solitary confinement. Although it is being used more and more often in our prison system, solitary confinement can be “as clinically distressing as physical torture,” explains Jeffrey L. Metzner, MD and Jamie Fellner, Esq. in a March 2010 article for the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law

Isolation can be psychologically harmful to any prisoner, with the nature and severity of the impact depending on the individual, the duration, and particular conditions (e.g., access to natural light, books, or radio). Psychological effects can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis.

A study by Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, found that roughly one-third of solitary inmates were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.”

We also need to find better ways of monitoring racial bias among law enforcement officers. This isn’t to say that we don’t have plenty of evidence of systematic racism in our penal system; there are plenty of widely circulated statistics which prove as much, from the fact that people of color make up 60 percent of our prison population, despite comprising only 30 percent of the general public, to research showing that youth of color are more likely to be arrested and face incarceration for the same crimes as their white peers. 

At the same time, as Emily Badger argued in a Washington Post article in April 2014, it is more difficult to determine with scientific accuracy the extent to which racial minorities are singled out by police compared to their white peers.

“This is a particularly difficult question to answer because we are fundamentally trying to compare stop and arrest rates (about which we have data) with criminal behavior (about which we seldom do),” Badger explains. “We know, for instance, who and how many people are arrested and convicted within a given year in any city for burglary. But we don’t know how many people—or which people—in that city committed a burglary, with or without getting caught. That larger group by definition evades data.”

Finally, we need to find more effective ways of using social media to fight incidents of racial injustice. Mychal Denzel Smith of The Nation wrote last year that events like the shooting of Trayvon Martin—and in particular the Sanford Police Department’s lackluster response to his death—have galvanized online social justice movements behind anti-racism campaigns to an unprecedented degree. It’s helped make names like Michael BrownEric Garner, and Tamir Rice part of a public conversation.

As a result, in the words of CNN’s Eliott McLaughlin, “the headlines make it feel as if the country is experiencing an unprecedented wave of police violence, but experts say that isn’t the case. We’re just seeing more mainstream media coverage.” 

At the same time, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of media coverage and Twitter activity has focused on the mistreatment of men whose lives had already been lost due to police brutality. While these stories are important, simply expressing outrage about them does not actually solve the deeper issue of racial profiling in our justice system. It is a necessary first step—but not the only the first step.

We have to get off the Internet here to find real solutions to the problem. One start would be the End Racial Profiling Act, which was proposed by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). To address this issue, the bill would clearly define would constitutes racial profiling, create a federal prohibition against it, mandate data collection that would allow experts to fully assess the extent of the problem, fund the retraining of law enforcement officials on how to discontinue racial profiling practices, and hold law enforcement agencies accountable that continue to engage in profiling. 

There is also the proposal that police officers be required to wear body cameras, one that has already reduced complaints against police by 40.5 percent in San Diego. In response, Chief Tony Farrar of the Police Foundation concluded that “the findings suggest more than a 50 percent reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly 10 times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment.”

Finally, we need to challenge the practice that almost certainly played an instrumental role in Browder’s death—the inhumane treatment he received behind bars. Not only should the application of punishments like solitary confinement be banned, but inmates need to receive far better protections against both corrupt prison officials and their own fellow prisoners. 

Even if Browder had been guilty, it was unconscionable for him to be so viciously abused during his three-year stay behind bars. Considering that we know he was innocent—and in light of the likelihood that there are countless other innocent men and women also behind bars right now—it is absolutely unacceptable for us to risk detaining, and then torturing past the breaking point, our ordinary fellow citizens.

This lesson may arrive too late to help Browder, but if we don’t learn it soon, there will be many more like him.

For more information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) or Samaritans (U.K.).

Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].

Photo via ell brown/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.