The support of family, friends, and celebrities, a chance to further his education, and the promise of a new life didn’t prove enough to save Kalief Browder — whose memories of starvation, isolation, and abuse during a long stint on Rikers Island consumed him and eventually drove him to take his own life last weekend. Browder was 22.
Browder spent three years awaiting trial in Rikers Island for a robbery he didn’t commit. By the time prosecutors dropped charges in 2013, he had spent more than half of his time in a squalid solitary confinement unit and endured severe beatings at the hands of corrections officers and fellow inmates. He also attempted suicide several times during his confinement. Browder told The New Yorker last year that those traumatic experiences drove him to depression.
Though physically free, Browder felt alone — and often stood alone — as he dealt with his unresolved trauma. The last two years of his life consisted of short stints in mental health institutions, consumption of antidepressants, paranoia about future assaults, and more suicide attempts. Friends and family who talked to Browder in the last weeks of his life say the young man felt helpless, and some recalled what they described as cryptic Facebook status updates.
“I think what caused the suicide was his incarceration and those hundreds and hundreds of nights in solitary confinement, where there were mice crawling up his sheets in that little cell,” Paul V. Prestia, Browder’s attorney, told the LA Times on Sunday. “Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time … those were direct contributing factors.… That was the pain and sadness that he had to deal with every day, and I think it was too much for him.”
When left unresolved, depression can distort one’s feelings, actions, and perceptions to a point that can be deadly. Ninety percent of people who commit suicide suffer from depression. Experts say the traumatic life events and the stress of adolescent change can trigger symptoms. Browder, who entered adulthood under torturous conditions, had fit the profile of someone in need of comprehensive mental health services that would help him make a safe transition from incarceration to freedom.
But it didn’t happen. Browder, left to his own devices after his release, dealt with the depression alone for the last two years of his short life. His elevation to the world stage, an anonymous donation for a semester at Bronx Community College, a meeting with rapper Jay Z, and Rosie O’Donnell’s invitation to be on “The View” didn’t suffice in helping Browder overcome his mental health struggles. Family members found two empty capsules of antidepressants on Browder’s counter on the day of his death.
Browder isn’t unique in his experiences on Rikers Island, a prison that has faced scrutiny in recent years for a host of human rights abuses. Although incarceration has fallen in recent years, inmates with mental illnesses account for nearly 40 percent of the prison’s population — ensuring that Rikers is among the largest mental health institutions in the United States. Experts say the situation arose thanks to the shuttering of mental health clinics and the absence of comprehensive mental health resources for returning citizens.
Mentally ill inmates have historically been placed in solitary confinement at Rikers Island, even though there’s evidence that practice can exacerbate mental health issues, give rise to paranoia, and make inmates more likely to self-harm. Even inmates like Browder who enter the system without a documented mental illness face a risk of developing issues as isolation takes a toll on their psyche.
As a whole, New York City’s justice system has been criticized for inflicting abuse upon inmates and failing to meet their health needs. Months before The New Yorker chronicled Browder’s more than 1,000 days behind bars, the Supreme Court of Manhattan extended court oversight of New York City’s correctional facilities after determining that the city didn’t meet the basic standard of care for the mentally ill. That decision followed the release of a report that detailed the beatings of more than 120 mentally ill inmates, five of which followed suicide attempts. The report also found that officers had increasingly punished inmates with solitary confinement.
By the time The New Yorker piece dropped, discussion about treatment of inmates in the New York City’s correctional system during and after their confinement had reached a fever pitch, with particular attention on lengthy stays, abuse of inmates, and lack of mental health services. Browder’s story, along with growing pressure from prison reform advocates, eventually prompted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to reform to the city’s court system and cut long stays for those awaiting trial. In January, officials banned isolation for all inmates 21 and younger.
The mayor’s proposal to increase access to mental health care during and after incarceration include providing mental health screenings before arraignment, enrolling inmates in Medicaid upon their release, and expanding community services for more than 4,000 inmates. Proponents contend these changes would curb substance abuse and lower recidivism among offenders.
De Blasio speculated that implementing such changes sooner could have helped Browder lead a healthy life, in spite of the appalling circumstances. “Kalief Browder’s tragic story put a human face on Rikers Island’s culture of delay — a culture with profound human and fiscal costs for defendants and our city,” De Blasio said in April.