Imagine being thrown into New York’s city jail, Rikers Island at age 16 for a crime that you know you didn’t commit. Imagine being locked away in solitary confinement for almost 800 days—as a child—only to allegedly be just about starved to death, beaten and assaulted.
Unfortunately, Kalief Browder didn’t have to “imagine.” He lived through it, only to remain mentally and emotionally imprisoned after his release by the trauma of his experiences.
At the tender age of 22, Kalief took his own life and Time: The Kalief Browder Story, a documentary produced by Jay Z, gives viewers an inside look at the hell he went through before ending it all.
Kalief may be gone, but his brother, Akeem, isn’t giving up in his quest for justice. In this EBONY exclusive, the 34-year-old social justice advocate reflects on the last years of his baby brother’s life and what the Rikers Island shutdown means for his legacy.
EBONY: Kalief was one of seven siblings. He wasn’t just robbed of time; his entire life was hijacked.
Akeem Browder: Exactly. At 16, you’re not allowed to give consent. The age of consent for sexual activity and for the military is 18. To drive it’s 18 in some states, and to make any decisions on work. We have consensus for that. Yet in New York, outside of North Carolina, we’re the only state that charges our kids as adults. We are saying, ‘You know what? We’re gonna allow YOU to go to jail.’ You don’t even have the opportunity to go to college yet. You don’t have the opportunity to do a lot of things, but you’re forced to be in adult situations.
EBONY: Right. I know Kalief spent roughly 800 days in solitary confinement. But did your brother ever talk about his time in prison? What were his experiences?
Browder: Kalief wasn’t open to talking to anyone. For one, even if he were here right now, he’d have to get comfortable with talking about this because it sounds crazy. It sounds crazy to us; I was there at 14 or 15 years old. I was on Rikers. When Kalief came home he wouldn’t speak to everyone but we spoke. I visited him when he was in solitary confinement and when he came home, his eyes were open to it and he talked with me. But he wouldn’t talk to his other brothers and sisters because they were never arrested. Not that he wouldn’t talk, he just wouldn’t talk anything extensive because it’s hard to believe that they would understand what you’re going through.
EBONY: You served time at Rikers?
Browder: Basically they were looking for a 27-year-old man who they called “The Bronx Rapist.” Yet, I was snatched up and sent to Rikers where I was jumped. By the time I went to court three months later, I was then sent to an adolescent facility. If you haven’t been to Rikers, you do not know what happens and you don’t believe it either because it sounds unreal. You have to fend for your life. You have to worry about where your next meal is coming from and if you will eat that next meal. You’re forced to do things that you wouldn’t do on a regular basis in the real free world, but in the captured world, or what I’d like to call kidnapped, you are forced to deal.
EBONY: As a viewer, TIME: The Kalief Browder Story is heartbreaking. My fear is that those who need to experience the roller coaster of emotions portrayed in the series won’t. How do we reach those in charge?
Browder: Back in September of last year when my mom was still alive, I was asked to speak at a Board of Commissions meeting where de Blasio spoke. He knows I’m the founder of Shut Down Rikers, an organization that I started 3 months after Kalief passed and obviously the name speaks for itself. The only words he had for us were about resources. He said, “We don’t have the resources” and then all of a sudden, eight months later, you found $10.6 billion to shut down a jail? Everyone who supported deserves a victory to see [Rikers] shut down. However, we’re not gonna have Kalief’s name be the reason why you open up four new jails, which is [NYC Mayor Bill] de Blasio’s plan. He’s gonna shut down Rikers to open up four new jails.
EBONY: I get that. Now a recent poll revealed the majority of Americans believed that there should be an alternative to jail as punishment. What do you imagine our criminal justice system looking like? What are some practices that you would like to see implemented or abolished?
Browder: We wrote a 16-page “Alternatives to Incarceration” known as an ATI. What we did was we polled throughout New York’s bureaus and asked the people of New York how they viewed shutting down Rikers. We then compiled the thoughts together and came up with a list of alternatives to incarceration written by the people. We currently spend $1.5 billion on operational cost alone on Rikers Island. We can use that money towards programs that can prevent people in our communities from going to jail because they have other things to do.
There are organizations that started re-entry into society programs. We’re not only talking about the people that’s going into these prisons and jails. We’re talking about the people that are going home. They’ve done 20- 30-year bids and when they come home, there’s nothing for them. So we have to watch out for that as well so these jails that de Blasio wants to build don’t get refilled with these elderly returning citizens. That’s one of the alternatives we could look forward to if we used this money in the right way.
For more information on Akeem Browder and his activism efforts visit, www.shutdownrikers.net.
Shantell E. Jamison is a senior editor for EBONY. She moderates various events centered on love, relationships, politics and wellness and has appeared on panels throughout the country. Her book, “Drive Yourself in the Right Direction” is available now. Keep up with Shantell via her website, Facebook, Twitter @Shantell_em and Instagram @Shantell_em.