Kalief Browder was a good kid. Innocent of the crime for which he served three brutal years, Browder was a schoolboy in fact and in demeanor — the slight frame, the oversized plastic glasses — he was easy to sympathize with, easy to mourn; a good kid done in by a bad system.
Browder was not just innocent but, evidently, charming — a “fun guy, the type of kid others wanted to be around,” according to the New Yorker profile that helped make him a household name. These qualities made Browder not just a good kid but a good story, his suicide a clarion call on behalf of the thousands of other young people subjected to the torture that is solitary confinement in penal institutions all across the nation.
Because of that story — most crucially, its meticulous telling by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker late last year — we will remember Kalief Browder. In a best case scenario, his death will accelerate the growing movement to limit or even end the caging of the youngest prisoners.
Any action that keeps a single child from suffering is, of course, good news. But what if he had done it? If Kalief Browder had in fact stolen a backpack — had borne a closer resemblance to our image of the “thug”? The slow murder by confinement to which he was subjected would be just as outrageous, but would we be as outraged?
New York City was already in the process of imposing strict limits on the use of solitary for juveniles when Browder took his life, as he had tried to do six times before during his 1,110 days behind bars, 800 of which he spent in solitary confinement. But his widely publicized death is speeding up that process, and the parallel effort to curb the brutal physical abuse that Browder and many others suffered at the hands of Rikers guards. Last week, the New York Times reported that “a deal is near” on a four-year-old class action lawsuit that challenges the treatment of teenagers at Rikers. (Under the proposed settlement, guards would be barred, except in extreme circumstances, from inflicting “blows to the head, face, groin, neck, kidneys and spinal column” of minors — something you would not think would require an explicit ban, much less a multi-year negotiation).
By hanging himself, Bill de Blasio asserted at a press conference, Browder “caused a lot of people to act, and a lot of changes we are making at Rikers Island right now are the result of the example of Kalief Browder.”
“I wish — I deeply wish — we hadn’t lost him.” the mayor added, sealing Browder’s status as a martyr, “But he did not die in vain.”
I'm grateful for the coverage this child’s life and death have generated, even more so for any changes made. At the same time, it rankles how much easier his suffering is to recognize and care about because he was innocent, and funny, and good.
Browder (nickname: Peanut) is far from the only teenager to be brutalized to the point of utter hopelessness behind the bars of an American penal institution. For years, researchers have documented the devastating impact solitary confinement has on the developing mind. Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations Rapporteur on torture, has called for an end to the practice of keeping children and youth in solitary for any amount of time, on the grounds that the practice imposes “mental pain and suffering” severe enough to constitute torture under international law. Numerous other national and international bodies have reached similar conclusions, including the United States Department of Justice, which singled out Rikers for its overuse of the practice.
But even as study after study has revealed that keeping kids in solitary leads to depression, self-harm, psychosis, and suicide, children remain isolated — for days, weeks, months, and years — in dark, barren cells furnished with little more than a concrete bunk, a blanket, and a cold metal toilet. According to a major federal study, more than a third of youth in custody reported spending time in solitary confinement. In my own conversations with hundreds of young people who were or had been incarcerated, I found only a small minority who had not experienced solitary confinement by one name or another.
More than half of those who kill themselves in juvenile facilities do so while being held in solitary confinement. Not all of them are as "sympathetic" as Browder. Many of them actually committed the crimes for which they were arrested. And those who love them have a hell of a time getting the rest of us to care.
Jonathan McClard was 16 when he shot and injured his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend in Missouri. According to Jonathan’s mother Tracy, the girl had told Jonathan that she was carrying his baby; that the new boyfriend was threatening to force her to inject cocaine in an effort to induce a miscarriage; and that she planned to kill herself first. Jonathan’s goal, Tracy said, was to scare the young man off, to save the girl’s life and protect the unborn child.
McClard may have been desperate, misguided, deluded, but this much is clear: he was not falsely accused. After the shooting, the teenager promptly turned himself in to the police. He was sent to an adolescent psychiatric hospital, then transferred to a county juvenile detention center, where he remained until a court hearing at which he was certified “fit” to be tried as an adult. At this point Jonathan was transferred, again, to county jail.
Shortly before his 17th birthday, McClard was transferred once more, to the juvenile wing at the Northeast Correctional Center, a medium security adult prison. He was to remain there until he turned 17, at which point he would be transferred to yet another prison, where he had been sentenced to serve a 30-year term. The last time Tracy McClard saw her son was two days before his 17th birthday. Jonathan had been placed in solitary confinement, and the visit took place through a thick pane of glass. The teenager was chained and shackled at the ankles, wrists, and waist. “I was shocked at how much he’d aged in the past couple of weeks, since being placed in solitary confinement,” Tracy recounted in testimony gathered by the Campaign for Youth Justice. “The most striking difference was that there was no hope left in him. Where his eyes had always shone, there was nothing but hopelessness.”
That was the last time Tracy saw her son alive. Five days later, Jonathan was found hanging in his cell.
I spent several days in Missouri with Tracy McClard and her remaining family. I met her husband, her mother, her daughter, and her grandchild. They seemed like a close family. They needed to be, Tracy told me. Her husband and older son had both attempted suicide themselves as a result of Jonathan’s ordeal, and her daughter had been hospitalized for panic attacks.
Tracy keeps her own head above water by telling Jonathan’s story to anyone who will listen. “I can’t stand the thought of it happening to somebody else,” she told me. “Just can’t STAND it.”
Tracy McClard is a powerful advocate, and Jonathan’s story is just about as wrenching as it gets. But unlike Kalief Browder, Jonathan McClard is not a household name. Jonathan, remember, actually committed the crime that got him locked up. That, apparently, justified torturing him to death via solitary confinement, compounded by the prospect of a lifetime behind bars.
"Jonathan McClard made his decision,” the district attorney who prosecuted him told the local paper in the wake of the teenager’s death, “and then he committed a second horrible crime, the murdering of himself."
In my own work as a journalist who writes about the abuses to which prisoners are subjected, I’ve come up myself against the imperative that those who have been brutalized behind prison walls must themselves be innocent if their voices are to be heard. More than once I've had magazine editors ask me to find a more "relatable" protagonist for a story about abuse behind bars.
Once, I pitched a story about the impunity with which correctional officers rape those in their custody. The story centered on a young woman who had, like Jonathan McClard, been tried as an adult at the age of 16. Her boyfriend had killed her grandmother during a burglary attempt, and she had been sentenced for felony murder because she had helped him plan the burglary by telling him when her grandmother would be out of the house (tragically, she was mistaken; her grandmother was at home when the boyfriend came for her TV).
In prison, this girl was raped repeatedly, and eventually impregnated, by a guard. When her assailant learned of her condition, he forced her to swallow toxic cleaning supplies in an unsuccessful attempt to induce a miscarriage. Eventually, this young woman sued the state and won, but neither she nor her child ever saw a cent. The state reclaimed the settlement to pay itself back for the expense of raising her child in foster care while she grew old in prison.
Great story, I was told by an editor at a national, mass-market magazine. Could I tweak the pitch just a bit before she sent it up the chain? Couldn’t I find a protagonist with a similar story, but one who had also been wrongfully accused? Readers wouldn’t “relate,” she explained, to a victim who was also a criminal. Kalief Browder was a good kid — a good kid who, like countless others, was tortured to death by means of solitary confinement.
Thousands of young people sit today in solitary confinement in juvenile and adult prisons across the country — a condition widely understood as torture. Many of these torture victims will commit suicide, some inside their cells, and others later on, locked in what some have described as the prison of their minds.
Let us begin by speaking their names.
Nell Bernstein is the author of Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison.