Today is May 25. It’s Kalief Browder’s birthday. He should be here to celebrate it with all of the people who love him.
Instead, Kalief’s life was stolen by the common cruelty of the American criminal justice system.
Kalief’s tragic story was first reported by Jennifer Gonnerman of The New Yorker. Kalief was arrested while walking home in the Bronx on May 15, 2010. He and a friend were returning from a party, but the officers accused Kalief of stealing a backpack. Kalief was jailed and a judge initially set an unaffordable $3,000 bail. Because his family couldn’t afford to pay, Kalief was sent to Rikers Island. There, he would spend the next three years living through hell on earth despite never even seeing a trial.
The abuse he faced, some of it at the hands of guards, was documented on video. In addition to being physically harmed, Kalief was routinely subjected to the psychologically damaging torture of solitary confinement. In fact, of the three years Kalief was unjustly at Rikers Island, he spent about two of them in solitary confinement. While the charges were eventually dropped against Kalief, the harm perpetuated by the criminal justice system made its impact.
Kalief’s death sparked a number of important on-paper reforms—the banning of solitary confinement for teens in federal prisons, research about the long-lasting impact of solitary confinement, plans for the eventual closing of Rikers Island, and state legislation that raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Every attempt to make the criminal justice system more dignifying and safer for human beings is good. These reforms are steps forward but without meaningful action and policy implementation, these are just bandaids.
In the seven years since Kalief’s passing, the criminal justice system is still irrevocably broken in every single state.
In Florida, over ten percent of the prison population, or 10,000 people—most of them Black men,—are in solitary confinement according to a 2019 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Like many officials, the Florida Department of Corrections claims that they don’t use solitary confinement. But they do admit to using various forms of isolation, the main difference between the two being semantics.) Several people who were incarcerated said that they were placed in solitary confinement as retaliation. Following the release of the report, FDOC guards actually continued to threaten retaliation against those bravely testifying about the overuse of solitary confinement in a subsequent lawsuit.
Florida, like many states, is also dealing with a high jail population because of cash bail. The Prison Policy Project reports that 53,000 people are sitting in local jails in the state. And there are complaints that there is little room to house people. In January 2022, a Leon County commissioner complained about overcrowding in the local jail. The ACLU of Florida identified 133 people who were eligible for release, but remained incarcerated because of unpaid bail. The average total bail for these individuals was over $41,000. Like the situation in Leon County, many remain behind bars not because of public safety. If they were a threat, a judge would revoke bail altogether. Rather, they are being detained in custody due to a wealth-based incarceration system where those who can afford to pay return to their homes, jobs, and families until trial, while those who cannot afford to pay have their livelihoods completely upturned.
And despite the national calls for accountability following the death of George Floyd in 2020, there has been considerable pushback by law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and legislators for meaningful reform to the cash bail system.
Kalief’s story was a wake-up call for a lot of Americans. But in seven years, what have we actually changed? Why do so many of us passively accept the mistreatment of incarcerated people? Why do we vote for politicians who repeatedly fail to prioritize our neighbors, or worse, vote for politicians who make it their mission to perpetuate the cruelty inflicted on them?
It’s naive to pretend that Kalief Browder is an outlier. His treatment, the dehumanization that led to his death, is a feature, not a bug. Though we tragically cannot turn back the sands of time, the least we can do is honor Kalief’s memory by pursuing major, systemic reforms that protect young Black men like him from suffering the same abuse.
Kalief is eulogized here by Jennifer Gonnerman, the reporter who first brought his story to the masses.