THE BROWDERS DISCUSS THEIR BROTHER KALIEF AND THEIR CAMPAIGN TO SHUT DOWN RIKERS
If you ever fly into New York City, especially LaGuardia Airport, you’ll likely see Rikers Island. It’s home to the city’s main jail complex, and it has a reputation as one of America’s worst correctional facilities. It’s also where Kalief Browder spent more than 1,000 days of his life, starting from when he was just 16 years old. Back in 2010, Browder was arrested while walking home in the Bronx. He was accused of stealing a backpack. Then he was sent to Rikers, where he remained for three years — about two of which were in solitary confinement — all while being abused by other detainees and correctional officers. He never got a trial.
It was Rikers where Browder first tried to kill himself. First, in 2012, then later, six months after he left Rikers. He entered psychiatric care, and later went on to Bronx Community College. His powerful story attracted the attention of politicians and celebrities such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul; New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio; Jay Z; and Rosie O’Donnell.
But Browder hanged himself in the summer of 2015. He was 22 years old. The family’s wrongful-death lawsuit was put on hold just 16 months after his suicide when his mother Venida died of what many have called “a broken heart.” We wanted to know more about Browder’s story, so we had Senior National Correspondent Jamil Smith speak with his siblings Nicole and Akeem. Akeem had been an inmate at Rikers when he was a teenager, and later worked there as an engineer. And he’s now the founder of the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers. We talked before the new six-part documentary series, “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story,” premiered on Spike on March 1. Spike and MTV — full disclosure — are both Viacom companies.
Jamil Smith: What kind of a guy was Kalief Browder?
Akeem Browder: Kalief … [he was] a normal kid. He was definitely a kid that was active. He had a six-pack, eight-pack almost, because we were always working out. We thought we were Dragon Ball characters. He had what’s in our, and I would say meaning in our demographic, our average lifestyle. I mean, we’re kids from the Bronx.
We had a sheltered life because we had so many kids in the house, my mom foster-carried 32 kids. And so, we had so many kids in the house that we became our own friends. We didn’t have to have friends on the street. We played with each other in the house.
Nicole: When I was … maybe 4 or 5 years old, I do remember when Kalief came home from the hospital. I was upset because I thought I was getting a sister, and when I noticed I wasn’t getting a sister, I kind of felt a little angry, but I just had to accept it because he was my brother now.
Growing up, he was annoying, like any other sibling. He hated the “Thriller” video. So whenever you turned it on, he would start screaming.
I know that feeling. I had the same feeling when I was 8 years old, when it came out.
Nicole: And he would, I’m telling you, scream and cry to the point, I remember Akeem actually put the jacket in the closet and started moving it, and was scaring him. But we all thought it was hilarious.
You know, he was a normal kid and stuff. He got on my nerves, he was silly a lot. He had an ugly laugh, oh my god.
Akeem: Oh, yes.
Nicole: And he’ll look at you, see, he had big, beady eyes, right?
Nicole: And they’d get wider, and wider.
Akeem: My mom actually gave us — gave them, not all of us — my three younger brothers, they had “heads.” We all have heads, but Kalief was Peanut Head, Kamal was Bighead, and Deion was Spud.
Nicole: Yes, it’s true!
Kalief was held for a thousand days on Rikers Island. For second-degree robbery, for stealing a backpack, allegedly. Which was never proven, because there was no trial. What happened? Where did the system break down?
Akeem: Man, that’s a good phrase. Where did it break down? To tell you the truth, it broke down from day one. There’s a construct of things that happens when a complaint is made. Now, officers, they’re obligated to make an arrest when a complaint is made.
Nicole: First, I’m gonna start from the beginning. In the beginning, when he first was arrested, my mom was really worried. I would tell her, and I didn’t believe that he would stay in there as long as… Come on. You just don’t know. And I told her, “Don’t worry, he’s gonna get out. Don’t worry about it.”
We’re going through the bail, which was $3,000. All these things, no matter how you put it: It’s a backpack. We’re doing all this over a backpack. OK?
Akeem: It wasn’t even violently taken.
Nicole: You know, it wasn’t an assault, it wasn’t smack, it wasn’t anything. It’s over a backpack. Kalief was very strong-minded. He was never a follower, even before he went to jail. He didn’t join a gang [at Rikers], he fought every single time, and got jumped every single time. And a lot of the [correction officers] there did not like that. They like when you kiss up to them, and Kalief wasn’t that type of person, so he got moved to different mods. Eventually, I guess, he was hungry and wanted some food. They told him to get back in his cell, and he didn’t listen. He was like, “No, I’m hungry.” I guess that erupted into a big argument, and they put him in solitary.
Akeem: Well, they beat him first. They brought him in the cell, off-camera, and beat him.
Nicole: Beat him first, put him in the cell —
Akeem: Not officers. It was deputies, captains, lieutenants, and officers. We have video.
Nicole: Yep. After the beating, they put him in the cell. So you’re thinking, “OK, I’m gonna get a couple days in here, this sucks.” It don’t matter. Two, three days, from that point on, the nightmares begin. Even when he came home, when he used to cut himself. He would keep it to himself, and then Deion would see it, or my mom or Akeem. And be like, “What the hell you doing?”