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Kalief Browder and Mass Incarceration’s Deadly Price

This June marks the third anniversary of the suicide of Kalief Browder, who had trouble coping after his release from nearly three years of pre-trial detention. At 16, Browder was held at New York’s Rikers Island detention facility because he was unable to afford bail and unwilling to take a plea deal. In a recent interview, his brother Akeem discusses the cruelty of the system and his pursuit of reforms:

My brother didn’t deserve to be on Rikers for such a low-level offense. Even if he did allegedly take the book bag, he didn’t belong in a place like Rikers, detained from having his high school graduation, detained from being present to see my [other] brother bring his two kids into this world and become an uncle. He shouldn’t have been detained and held in the Guantanamo Bay of New York while he’s a teen.

So the anguish that he suffered on Rikers — the torment, the solitary confinement for 18 months straight — that kind of torture deserves rehabilitation and attention toward his psyche. When he was released, they gave him zero help. I’m not talking about the celebrities that helped; I’m not talking about the people that gathered around him to get [him] back into school and motivate him to get his GED and then continue toward college.

The people came together, but the government should’ve stepped up because it was their fault…It’s been three years. We’ve put forward three laws in the state of New York — on speedy trial reform, discovery reform, and no-cash bail reform [which gets rid of cash bail for non-felony crimes] — and yet not one of them has been done.

According to a Harvard study, of the more than 4,000 people who died while incarcerated 2013, those awaiting trial had twice the rate of death as those convicted, with suicide the highest cause of deaths in local jails. 

Akeem Browder also spoke of the physical toll on his mother, who died about a year after her son. A recent report from the Center for American Progress found mass incarceration also leads to a range of health issues and focuses on the ways in which the criminal justice system increases stress on women of color and contributes to higher rates infant mortality in minority communities:

Millions of black women are exposed to the harmful effects of mass incarceration during their lifetimes. Whether they experience imprisonment personally or they have an incarcerated loved one, contact with the system is a significant stressor that undermines the long-term health of mothers and their children.

Meanwhile, the book Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison by Harvard University researcher Bruce Western also discusses the ways in which mass incarceration and the stress of reentry contribute health impacts. In a book review in The Atlantic, Vann Newkirk writes that the book provides an unsparing window into people’s experiences “in order to ‘bear witness to the lives of those held captive in America’s experiment with mass incarceration’”:

As Homeward describes, the Boston Reentry Study found that, along with poverty, human frailty is perhaps the defining feature of incarceration. Fifty-four percent of the reentry population reported a history of problems with drugs or alcohol. Two-thirds had a history of mental illness or addiction. One-third reported serious back pain, arthritis, or some other disability. Oftentimes, many people entering prison have chronic diseases stemming from drug use, along with other unmet physical and mental needs—needs that immediately become unmet again upon reentry, when their institutionalized care ends.