Three weeks ago, a young African American man from the Bronx took his own life. The impact of Kalief Browder’s suicide has been felt at the city, state, and even federal levels, and may be felt far into the future.
Browder’s story, in which he was held on Rikers Island for three years beginning at the age of 16, spent an accumulated two of those years in solitary confinement, and was ultimately released without a trial or charges, became news last fall, when Jennifer Gonnerman published a profile of him in the New Yorker. Prior to his death, he attracted celebrity attention from the likes of Jay-Z and Rosie O’Donnell, and the attention was used to garner support around issues ranging from bail reform to banning youth from solitary to raising the age at which juveniles may be imprisoned and tried as adults. His death has been a galvanizing force and has spurred even more attention and action.
Within a week of Kalief Browder’s death, the New York State Assembly passed a bill introduced by Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell that would ban solitary confinement for all individuals below the age of 21 and all individuals with a mental illness or a developmental disability. This is a bill that could prevent future cases like Browder’s from ending in tragedy. It is a bill that could eventually alter the course of the solitary confinement of youth across the country.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has found ways to bring up solitary confinement issues in the past, cited Browder’s story in a concurring opinion this week. The case, Davis v. Ayala, was focused on jury selection and the death penalty, but Kennedy introduced the intersectional issue of solitary confinement into the discussion. His critique was based on research and referred to the “terrible price” exacted by prolonged isolation.
Closer to home, a Union Square vigil on June 16, organized by the Jails Action Coalition (JAC), gave voice to powerful words from various individuals affected by solitary confinement directly and indirectly. Johnny Perez, a JAC member and survivor of solitary confinement, said, “I’m scared of becoming a hashtag on a t-shirt.” This is a sentiment that has been echoed by many young people of color in a culture that profiles and often wounds or kills them. At this point, #KaliefBrowder has appeared on Twitter thousands of times, and a Google search of his name yields over 600,000 results.
Outside of social media, news media outlets have published dozens of pieces on Kalief Browder in a variety of different contexts. The New York Times published an editorial on Browder and the quest to ameliorate the “culture of violence” fostered on Rikers Island. Ian Kysel wrote an op-ed piece for Washington Post outlining the irreversible harm done to youth in solitary. Browder may have fallen victim to the hashtag, but his legacy could prove to be one that changes laws or, at least, attitudes toward solitary confinement.
Browder’s lawyer Paul Prestia spoke at the vigil, saying, “If we have to stand here again a year from now or six months from now, what’s the point?” Browder’s death may have helped O’Donnell push the new bill through the Assembly, and Kennedy’s concurrence could invite cases regarding solitary confinement to be considered by the Supreme Court. The question is whether or not his story will remain in people’s hearts and minds when the Assembly reconvenes in January, or when the next Supreme Court case that has room to set a solitary confinement precedent occurs, which could be years from now.
The solitary confinement narrative refers to the widely held opinions or misconceptions regarding the practice, which are created and perpetuated by media outlets, government officials, and the public. Browder’s death is tragic because he was so young, because this could have been avoided, because this system has loopholes, because he was simply human—the list goes on. Changing the narrative through legislative as well as grassroots action is important in its potential for increased resistance in the public and private spheres.
Though Browder was dedicated to bringing about change, he did not die for the attention. He died because he was in serious pain, because the punishment for living inside a body that is constantly profiled has shown, time and time again, to be death. He died because there was no escaping solitary confinement and what it took from him as a teenager. He died because the prison system forgot about him once he entered the box. His death exists not in a vacuum, but in the context of a movement. The movement owes it to him not only to mourn, but also to take action.