The Echoes of Solitary

When people try to tell me I can find a better ‘cause’ than criminal justice reform, it only punctuates how much need there is for education. This is just one story. This story and the countless like it are why this is my cause.

I have children, and it isn’t a stretch to envision one of them being picked up by the police for something or other. As a matter of fact, I’ve received a phone call or two regarding my children. Their brains aren’t fully developed at the age of sixteen, and it’s fair to say there will be bumps in the road. It’s life. I’m not talking about gang violence or rape or home invasions. I am talking about kid stuff. One of the more concerning calls I ever received was when one of my boys was on top of a Staples office supply store.   Who knows what he was doing up there, because the police who were holding him when I arrived didn’t climb up on the building to find out.

But – what if. What if I didn’t know the officer? I did. What if there had been something on that roof that pointed towards my son. Kalief Browder was sixteen years old when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. The charge was second degree robbery. The boy was walking home, in his own neighborhood when the arrest took place. Nothing was found on Browder at the time.

Kalief was given a choice. He could take a plea bargain. If he did, he would be released. He refused though, trusting in the fairness of the system. He was confident his innocence would speak for itself.

Browder’s family couldn’t come up with the bail money. So, a boy who was not found guilty of any crime, was sent to Rikers Island to await a trial. The trial never took place though. He was held for three years, at which time the charges were dropped.

Rikers Island has long been thought of as a dangerous and isolated place – with good reason. It is just that – dangerous and isolated. Not only are there walls and fences to keep eyes from seeing what takes place inside, but it is also on an island. That, in itself, fosters feelings of hopelessness.

During his stay at Rikers, Kalief was offered several opportunities to take a plea. He never waivered, maintaining his innocence. He also attempted to take his own life on several occasions while there. Kalief Browder’s stay at Rikers changed him. He reported abuse by inmates and officers and spent nearly two years of his stay in solitary. In an article written by Jennifer Gonnerman, she included a clip of footage that was obtained from inside Rikers. It’s haunting when you see this young man being tossed around like a rag doll, knowing that this is just the footage that we have access to. He had several more stories of abuse to tell, of which we don’t have footage.

Kalief wasn’t able to shake his experiences when the charges against him were finally dropped. He was twenty. He couldn’t fill his old shoes anymore. He’d missed his place in life. He didn’t know where he fit in while the rest of the world had kept moving without him. He was quoted in one article as saying, “…in my mind right now, I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”

He reportedly couldn’t sleep at night until he checked all the locks throughout the home. At one point, he was fearful his TV was watching him, so he got rid of it. He wasn’t able to escape his experience. He tried to end his life on numerous occasions and finally succeeded at his parents’ home when he was twenty two years old.

This is what’s happening in the United States of America. This is my cause. The expanse of this problem – from the judges, to the corrections officers, to the prosecutors, to the public defenders – is overwhelming. Saying this is not a ‘just’ cause is so far from the truth. People like Kalief Browder deserve advocates. You can see a sick puppy, you can see an orphan – you can’t see what is happening behind the walls of a prison.

It’s difficult to open ourselves up to the possibility that this could happen to our sixteen year old son. It’s much easier to think it can’t. Kalief’s mom found him after he took his life. She heard banging in the house and couldn’t figure out what the noise was, so she went outside. When she looked up from her backyard, she saw her son dangling from a window by a cord. He’d hung himself.

It wasn’t long after that Venida Browder, Kalief’s mother, also passed away. Some say she died of a broken heart. I say the same when I try to feel what she must have felt during those years when she couldn’t free her son. When I look up and try to envision what she saw from where she stood in her yard, I am certain her heart was broken. It’s time we all cared.


Gonnerman, Jennifer. “Before the Law.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 08 June 2015. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.

Gonnerman, Jennifer. “Kalief Browder, 1993–2015.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.

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