Three thousand dollars.
The price of a cheap used car, a decent college scholarship, or maybe a round-trip international flight. Or, in one sad case, the lives of a falsely accused 22-year-old man and his grieving 63-year-old mother.
Kalief Browder served three torturous years in prison without being convicted of a crime, and died by suicide two years after he was finally released. Last Friday his mother, Venida, who was fighting for the system to pay for what it did to her son, fell victim to it herself. All because they couldn’t raise the $3,000 bond.
In 2010 Browder, then a 16-year-old Bronx kid, was arrested while walking home from a party, under accusations of robbery. It landed him in police custody, but when Browder couldn’t pay the $3,000 bail to keep him free him until his trial, he was sent to New York’s notorious Rikers Island. After serving 33 months, he refused a plea deal and maintained his innocence, without ever being convicted of a crime or receiving a trial. About 800 days of that were spent in solitary confinement.
After his June 2013 release, the robbery charge was dismissed, and despite trying to assume a normal life, earning a GED and attending Bronx Community College, his experiences haunted him causing him to spiral into paranoia and psychosis. In June 2015, Browder died by suicide in his mother’s home.
Browder’s death was already tragic. Activists have cited it as a prime example of the need for criminal justice reform in New York City, filmmaker Ava Duvernay recapped the case in her new documentary 13th, and Jay Z is executive producing a documentary series about his case.
But this month it was made even worse when Venida Browder died at age 63. The official cause of death was complications from a heart attack, but her lawyer cites perhaps a more likely cause.
“I think she literally died of a broken heart,” attorney Paul Prestia said. “…The stress from this crusade coupled with the strain of the pending lawsuits against the city and the pain from the death were too much for her to bear.”
In a video recorded for EBONY news partner The Marshall Project, which covers the U.S. criminal justice system, Venida speaks up for her son. She recounted hearing the tales of his traumatic experiences while visiting him at Rikers, and witnessed his downward spiral after he was released.
“They told him, ‘we’re going to break you.’ That’s what they told my baby. That they were going to break him. And in reality, they did,” she said. Minutes later in the video, she recounts the Saturday morning when her son took his own life: she heard commotion upstairs from his room that she initially dismissed as him pacing or rearranging furniture. After hearing a loud boom, she ran upstairs and found him hanging from the air conditioner.
“I miss my son,” she wept in the video, recorded last March. “I miss him, so much.”
We already know there are lots of problems with the prison and criminal justice systems. In the largest prison strike in United States history, tens of thousands of prisoners are demanding a variety of improvements, depending on their prison: an end to the slave labor allowed by the 13th Amendment loophole, improvement to inhumane living conditions and poor diets, and the implementation of effective rehabilitation programs to grant them the humanity they deserve.
But as seen with Browder’s case, it’s sometimes easy to forget that many of these people shouldn’t be in prison in the first place. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which are linked to the mythology of Black criminality, Black men and women are spending time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. And everyone deserves a fair trial; an arbitrary amount of money shouldn’t prevent that.
Kalief Browder’s bail: $3,000, after faulty charges. Sandra Bland’s bail: $500, who was found dead in prison after an arrest that the officer was later indicted for. Insignificant amounts of money, especially when the cost is the life of someone who was falsely accused. Others are still sitting in jail or prison, simply because they can’t scrape together the money to free themselves until a trial. And others take plea deals just for a sliver of freedom, leaving with a prison record that ruins their chance at a reasonable life once they get on the outside. It’s a trap where death, slavery and lifelong discrimination are the only results.
In an August 2015 story, New York Times reported that “at any given time, close to 450,000 people are in pretrial detention in the United States,” and that “(i)n New York City, roughly 45,000 people are jailed each year simply because they can’t pay their court-assigned bail.” The same piece reports that even when bail is $500 or less, only 15 percent of defendants can get the money necessary to avoid jail.
During his interview with Huff Post Live, Kalief Browder gave a statement that’s even more chilling now, more than a year after his death and just a week after his mother’s death.
“This happens every day. I feel like this gotta stop [sic]. There’s a lot of people in there for stuff that they didn’t do, and they gotta be in there for about three years,” Browder told Marc Lamont Hill in the interview. “A lot of people…will take the plea deal, knowing they didn’t do it, and it happens every day.”
But last weekend tragically reminded us that these prisoners aren’t the only ones affected: their parents, siblings, children, significant others, and loved ones are suffering as well. These are people who are members of families and communities, and their loved ones suffer without them.
And it ultimately cost the life of the person who loved Kalief Browder the most.