TWO YEARS LATER: KALIEF BROWDER AND BLACK MENTAL HEALTH
Two years ago today, Kalief Browder took his own life after being imprisoned at Riker's Island for three years without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. Kalief and a friend were stopped by multiple police cars on the way home from a party and officers searched for the reported items they were accused of stealing, yet they found nothing. Despite officers finding no evidence to suggest a crime was committed by Browder or his friend, they did fit the description of "two male Black guys..." and that was enough for them to be taken to a holding cell, booked, and after the family could not afford the $3000 bail, sent to Riker's Island. All for a crime he did not commit, but was racially profiled for.
While at Riker's, Kalief spent a majority of his time in solitary confinement, stuck in cages 12 x 7 feet large, treated like an animal. Angela Davis once stated, "Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo - obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other," and certainly Kalief spending approximately 800 out of over 1000 days on Riker's Island alone, encaged in a 12-foot cell is a testament to the truth of that statement. Solitary confinement is a crime in itself; it is inhumane, and studies have shown the psychological effects of being encaged in a tiny room, often without windows, for extended amounts of time can be quite damaging.
Kalief's story is not just a powerful indictment of the systemically racist institutions of "justice" in this country, but the effects they have on Black mental health as well. Kalief's first crime was being Black in the wrong place and wrong time, and fitting a criminal description. His next crime was not being born in a family that could afford a $3000 bail. And his final crime was being Black in a country with a "criminal justice" system which determined his fate, due to his race and class, before he was even born. Through several mental health lapses and heightening depression, Kalief refused to take a plea deal and strongly refused to plea guilty to a crime he did not commit, one where there was virtually no evidence against him. While roughly 95% of defendants at Riker's take plea deals/plea guilty, and less than 4% of all cases go to trial, Kalief's refusal of a plea deal for nearly three years remained a remarkable display of determination, as well as an understand to the sociopolitical context in which he existed.
Video footage from the prison showed Browder constantly tormented and abused by prison guards, and it also showed them instigating and taunting prisoners to purposely escalate prisoner violence against Browder. We must also remember that during this time, Kalief was only 16 years old and this stressful violence was occurring on a still developing brain. The long term psychological effects of high stress on developing brains has been shown to cause increased risk for mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, and in some cases even psychosis. Kalief's mental health lapsed severely as time grew, and he attempted suicide multiple times while imprisoned. Friends, family, and Kalief himself reported the magnitude of his depression, but it continued to grow without restraint.
His mother, Venida Browder, was the one who found her youngest son dead on June 6th, 2015, at only 22 years old. He was in his family's home next to the Bronx Zoo, the home they'd spent a large portion of his childhood in. The home she'd watched him grow up in, only to be ripped away from her, then given back, then taken away again. Roughly a year after his death, his mother died of a heart attack. Lawyers suggested she literally died of a broken heart, with the stress of her son's situation impacted with his death causing such great stress to her heart it collapsed.
When I think of Kalief Browder, I want to cry. My head feels dizzy, my breathing feels uneasy, and my sight becomes a grayish-black mixture of sadness and anger. I think of my own run-ins with the law, and my run-ins with depression and mania, the times I tried to take my own life, and I think of how many other Black boys like myself could end up just like Kalief Browder. I think of the strength of compounding a profoundly racist police institution, with an almost more profoundly racist "criminal justice" system, mixed with a growing depression, and how deadly that mixture is. I think of the current case of young Bresha Meadows, and how it too highlights the importance of conversations that center the intersections of Blackness, mental health, and the criminal justice system.
If Angela Davis says jails and prisons are designed to break humans, then they are also designed for the rest of us to see our people being broken. They are designed for our friends, our cousins, our brothers and sisters, the family we will never meet, to be broken while we on the outside have to stand and watch the breaking; a symbolic warning, they taunt us with the violence that is always just inches away from us. The breaking is and always has been a spectacle, from the time we were whipped in the center of the courtyard, to the the time we are left to lay in the street for hours after our execution, to instill fear and loathing into the rest of us.
Kalief Browder is one of many, and one whose name we are lucky enough to know and uplift. His legacy can also be one that exists as an important reminder not just against the evils of systemic racism, propelling the work of criminal justice and prison abolition forward, but against the issues of dealing with mental health as well. Our resources in Black communities for mental health are limited, but they do exist if you search hard enough. If you are feeling depressed or suicidal please ask for help, please look around for those who are willing to listen to you, and please know that you are not alone.
In Kalief's honor:
- National Suicide Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- LGBT National Hotline: 1-888-843-4564
- Youth Crisis Hotline: 800-HIT-HOME
- Adolescent Suicide Hotline: 800-621-4000
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
- Suicide & Crisis Hotline: 1-800-999-9999