Notorious prison was 'torture' for 16-year-old

Kalief Browder was just 16 when he was jailed, accused of stealing a backpack. Source: SBS Dateline

Kalief Browder was sent to the notorious Rikers Island jail in New York even though he was only 16 and accused of stealing a backpack. He ultimately took his own life. His brother Akeem tells Dateline the family’s story.

I was a kid when I saw my first murder. There was an inmates fight and a guy got stabbed in the neck with a pencil. It wasn't an easy thing seeing a guy getting stabbed with a pencil and die.  

I was 15-years-old when I was locked up for six months in Rikers Island Jail.  Before then, I didn't even know outside of the Bronx, New York, where I grew up. I didn't go outside my neighbourhood.

My mom made us go to school and then straight home, school, home. I didn't know there was Manhattan, I was really green.

The first thing you notice on the Rikers Island Jail complex is the smell. It’s disgusting, dirty. Everything smells like urine, everything. No matter where you go, you get this weird sense of smell.


See more of Kalief's story in Dateline's report, Unjust Justice?

During the six months I was there, as well as witnessing a murder, I witnessed someone getting slashed in the face and I myself was a victim of violence.  I felt warm blood coming down my face and realised I’d been jumped.  

It's about survival on Rikers Island. In my mind, Rikers is a torture chamber for youth or adult blacks and hispanics. It's for the low class, middle class and the poor.

The night everything changed for my family started out kind of normally. My mother let Kalief go to a party with a friend.  He was 16, it was his first time allowed to go somewhere.

They said he stole a backpack from someone on the street and arrested him. I thought he's a kid! They’ve got to let him go, he’s like 16-years-old.

So I tried to calm my mom down over the phone - “They're not gonna do anything… ma, they're gonna let him out... probably tomorrow…”

And tomorrow came and we found out they're still holding him. And they kept holding him for more than three years.

It wasn't a severe case, it wasn't a violent case. But we didn't have the money for bail, so he became stuck in the system.  Why him? Because he's black.

It’s supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. But what they’re doing to us is the other way around; guilty until proven innocent. It was tragic that my brother went through this that he was innocent.  

My brother – a kid – wasn't even old enough to make his own decision on most things in the world like drinking, or even being considered an adult enough to drive. 

So if you're a minor, why should you be treated as an adult in the criminal justice system?  It doesn't make sense.

He was cool. I mean, he was my brother, my youngest brother... we used to do everything.  We used to play fight and pretend we were superheroes and dragon ball characters.  

Kalief had a nickname - Peanut! You know why? Because Kalief had a peanut shaved head, like the peanut M & M.

He missed out on my sister getting married, he missed out on Prom, a lot happens in three years if you think about it.

He used to miss my mom’s cooking, because obviously he was not being fed well.  He missed her rice and chicken the most.

When he came home, he suffered from trying to remember that he's not a kid any more, he still wanted to be that 16-year-old playing. He wanted to be a kid again.

Because he was so tortured on Rikers that when he came home, I don't think he had a good concept of reality and delusion.

I started doing activist work because I want to make sure the public is aware of what's going on.

It's either you have the option to go to sleep at night and don't say anything or you have the option to do something about it.

Read more about the campaign to shut down Rikers and see the full story in Unjust Justice? 

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