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 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.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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 [corrections 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?”
And what would he say?
Nicole: I remember one time I came over there to visit. I live in New Jersey now, and before, when he did come home, I was living in upstate New York, and I just moved to New Jersey later on. And I went to her house — now this is crazy. I haven’t seen him, but he was released maybe two months after, and I came over there. I went inside my mom’s house and I said, “Ma, how’s everything?” I look over, and in front of my house we have a driveway. He’s walking in a box. That’s what he did in Rikers. He walked in his cell room, in a box. Swinging his arms left to right, walking in a box. From corner to corner to corner, like a square.
Akeem: In his room, he did the same thing.
Nicole: Then I said, “Ma, what the hell is he doing?” She said, “Nicole, that’s what he did in Rikers.” I laughed at first, because I’m like, what is he being silly for, you know? But I didn’t, I was being naive. Instantly when she told me that, I felt a lot of empathy. I was like, oh my goodness.
Akeem: This is, just imagine, close your eyes, sit there thinking about what you do in a world where you can’t close your eyes and imagine. You can’t even close your eyes to sleep because you have to watch your back at all points. But even in solitary confinement, you can’t even close your eyes because like, I think Van Jones, who is part of the documentary, like he said, "Even if you close your eyes, you’re still living in a hell."
After his suicide, you started looking for ways to make changes.
Akeem: The Campaign to Shut Down Rikers was built off a grassroots organization. Actually ... Yes, it sounds blatant that we’re trying to shut down Rikers, but we’re getting the word out there that, one: Rikers is a jail, not a prison. Two different words because it has different meanings.
What are the different meanings?
Akeem: The different meanings between jail is, one, you are innocent until proven guilty while you’re in jail. You just got arrested. But a prison is when you were convicted of whatever allegation, and you’re serving time in an upstate facility.
Nicole: Everybody says, “Oh, United States of America, I want to go there.” But we have the most fucked-up prison system, jail system, justice system.
Akeem: So, my mom’s death came just October of last year. She wanted to do something, she wanted to solve Kalief’s case before she passed. She had a bad heart. She was only operating with 19 percent of her heart working because of the heart attack she endured.
Nicole: She actually found out two weeks before that she had 19 percent, and [then] two weeks later…
Akeem: What happens is that [the authorities] knew she was gonna pass. They didn’t think that the family’s going to pick it up, or that we’re going to go after it even harder. You let my mom die, and what they do is — it’s a game. We can’t afford attorney after attorney after attorney. We don’t have the money. We didn’t even have the money to bail him out, so how are we going to afford attorney after attorney? And if we don’t keep the name of Kalief alive, I gotta say, once it starts dying, that’s when they start playing more games. Because they’re like, “Oh shoot, no one’s listening now. This story, we can finally wipe our foreheads.”
Nicole: They didn’t expect this documentary, I’ll tell you that. They didn’t expect it. Wait until it comes out and they get to see it.
What have you and your family tried to do to heal after Kalief’s death, after your mother’s death?
Nicole: Losing Kalief was hard. Losing my mom was even harder.
Akeem: That, to me … Losing Kalief, I was angry. I went to the streets, I protested, I rallied, I got arrested 11 times that year after he passed from marching or even just driving on the street. Eleven times. But when my mom passed, I felt like I lost everything.
Nicole: Our mom held everything together. Every single thing together. The family, the values, she was there for us no matter what. We told her every single thing. We argued with her, and she never held a chip on her shoulder. She came back, and we still were best friends.
Akeem: You could argue in the morning, and be right on my mom’s bed in that evening watching a movie, laughing it up.
Akeem: And you know what? You’re right. That’s family. So now, they knew they did wrong by the youngest kid in our family. They did wrong by me years ago, but they did wrong by the youngest kid in our family, then took our mother. You took the head of the house and then left us to pick up the pieces on our own. We still need counseling. Fortunately, I went through some counseling, and still — December of last year — I tried to commit suicide. Not that I’m proud of it, but depression is real.
You lost your mom, and yet everyone wants a piece of you like, “Hey, can you come up and do this? Can you speak on this? Can you appear here? Can we speak to you on this?” And it’s great, it gets the word out, but at the end of the day, what we’re doing is reliving it every day to tell our brother’s story so that, yeah, other people can hear it, and be inspired to not take a plea.
Nicole: This is why we’re here now, we don’t want this to happen again. He’s in heaven now. He’s away from all the hell we’re living in now. He’s in paradise, so we have to continue and fight for him, and fight for what’s right to get justice.