- Akeem Browder
older brother of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide in 2015 after spending three years at New York’s Rikers Island jail without trial, after he was accused at the age of 16 of stealing a backpack. Akeem is also the founder of the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers.
- Marc Levin
award-winning independent filmmaker and director of the new documentary, Rikers. The broadcast premiere will be on November 15 at 10 p.m on WNET Channel 13 in New York.
We continue our coverage of Rikers Island. In October, the Browder family held a memorial service for Venida Browder, who died “of a broken heart” 16 months after her own son, Kalief, hanged himself in his Bronx home after spending nearly three years at New York’s Rikers Island jail. In 2010, when Kalief was just 16, he was sent to Rikers Island, without trial, on suspicion of stealing a backpack. He always maintained his innocence and demanded a trial. He spent the next nearly three years at Rikers, even though he was never tried or convicted. For nearly 800 days of that time, he was held in solitary confinement. Near the end of his time in jail, the judge offered to sentence him to time served if he entered a guilty plea, and told him he could face 15 years in prison if he went to trial and was convicted. Kalief still refused to accept the plea deal. He was only released when the case was dismissed. While in Rikers, Kalief was repeatedly assaulted by guards and other prisoners. He also told Huffington Post Live that he was repeatedly denied food by guards while he was in solitary confinement. These experiences traumatized him, and ultimately, after his release, Kalief Browder took his own life on June 6, 2015, when he was 22 years old. For more, we speak with Akeem Browder, Kalief’s older brother. He is the founder of the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue our coverage of Rikers Island. In October, the Browder family held a memorial service for Venida Browder, who died “of a broken heart” 16 months after her own son, Kalief, hanged himself in his Bronx home, after spending nearly three years at New York’s Rikers Island jail. In 2010, when Kalief was just 16, he was sent to Rikers Island, awaiting trial on suspicion of stealing a backpack. He always maintained his innocence and demanded a trial. He spent the next nearly three years at Rikers, even though he was never tried or convicted. For nearly 800 days of that time, he was held in solitary confinement. Near the end of his time in jail, the judge offered to sentence him to time served if he entered a guilty plea, and told him he could face 15 years in prison if he went to trial and was convicted. Kalief still refused to accept a plea deal. He was only released when the case was dismissed.
AMY GOODMAN: While on Rikers, Kalief was repeatedly assaulted by guards and other prisoners. He also told Huffington Post Live he was repeatedly denied food by guards while he was in solitary confinement. These experiences traumatized him. Ultimately, after his release, Kalief Browder took his own life, June 6, 2015, when he was 22 years old. He was a student at Bronx Community College. The video that’s come out of the assaults on him by both the guards and the prisoners is just astounding.
For more, we’re joined by Akeem Browder, Kalief Browder’s older brother, founder of the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers.
Akeem Browder, it’s wonderful to be able to meet you in person. I know it was hard just in the music break; as we played Nina Simone, we were showing images of your brother. You were seven, your family, seven kids?
AKEEM BROWDER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You called him “Peanut”?
AKEEM BROWDER: Yeah, Kalief was Peanut, yeah. You know, I appreciate you having me here, and I wish it was Kalief actually here, so that he can tell his story the way he would have, or my mom, who now we’ve lost two—I’ve had to go to two funerals already within the last 16—not even two years—18 months. And in that time, I’ve heard promises from de Blasio and—that there was going to be some reform justice made and that other people wouldn’t have to suffer the way Kalief did, which doesn’t bring Kalief back at all, but it does let me know that or tells our family that something is going to be done about this. And yet, not a single thing has been done.
I mean, when we’re talking about how many people are on Rikers, it’s no longer at 15,000, where it was when I first started getting into this, but just because it’s down to roughly 60—78,000 doesn’t mean that it makes a difference on the numbers of people that’s actually going in, which is 70,000 people. Seventy thousand people go into Rikers yearly. And if you realize that—and I overheard you guys speaking about gladiator school—these 70,000-some-odd people, who are black and brown skin, 89 percent of the population, and yet we’re going through gladiator school, to then be released into public, where people live and fear against you because you’re on the news as a demonic animal or we’re demonized and dehumanized just because of our color of our skin most of the time. So, I mean, what Kalief went through, no kid should go through. A lot of 16- and 17-year-olds are a majority that make up that 70,000 people who go into the system.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What are the chances—you mentioned the issue of closing down Rikers. There’s been discussion, at least in the City Council of New York. Several councilmembers, including the speaker of the council, have said that they are in favor of shutting down Rikers. The mayor, while apparently sympathetic to the issue, has not made that stance. What’s your sense of how that movement is building and the potential that it might succeed?
AKEEM BROWDER: As I said, within the last 18 months, there’s—Mayor de Blasio, although sounding sympathetic, it’s lip service. He tells us that they’re going to reduce the population; however, at that time, from then 'til now, it's only been couple hundred, not even, because the population from 15—1,500 is only down to 1,475. That’s not movement. That’s not reform. And that’s not—that’s not being sympathetic.
AMY GOODMAN: Did Kalief lead to children, teenagers, being taken out of solitary confinement at Rikers?
AKEEM BROWDER: So, yes, there is a movement to get—like I’ve been working with Close Rikers group, where we’re pushing for raise the age awareness and the Kalief Browder law. However, we’re focusing on Rikers Island, but the Department of Corrections, in which I used to work for while Kalief was there, as an engineer, not as an officer, but that population is just being refocused to—you’re focusing on Rikers while there’s more than just Rikers there. There’s “The Boat.” We have Manhattan House, Brooklyn House. Rikers Island is a overflow.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: “The Boat” is a barge in the Bronx, isn’t it?
AKEEM BROWDER: A barge, yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A real barge, yeah.
AKEEM BROWDER: And literally, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. We’re focusing on Rikers. While we’re focused at Rikers, what they’re doing is abusing other human beings in other facilities.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re unusual, in that you both served at Rikers Island—as a corrections guard?
AKEEM BROWDER: No, as an engineer.
AMY GOODMAN: As an engineer. And you were also a detainee there.
AKEEM BROWDER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about both experiences.
AKEEM BROWDER: You know, actually, I was—I was there as an adolescent, as well. And at 16 years old, being there then, where they considered you an adult, what they would do is—so, the public is being lied to. What they’re saying is that we’re putting these adolescents in adolescent facilities. But me being there, I can tell you that what they do is there’s John Does. John Does are people who don’t want to give up their age, but they’re 34, 30, 28, and since they’re considered John Does and they lie about their age, they’re then entered into the adolescent prisons, because they—
AMY GOODMAN: How old were you when you were there?
AKEEM BROWDER: Sixteen.
AMY GOODMAN: Like Kalief.
AKEEM BROWDER: Fifteen going on 16. They said I was 26, actually, until they corrected. But then they put me in adolescent facility. But there were adults there. And what they do is they’ll entitle people, different gang members. Instead of trying to fix what’s going on there, they create the system of violence that’s really predominant.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to turn to Kalief Browder in his own words. In this December 2013 interview with HuffPost Live’s Marc Lamont Hill, Browder talked about his suicide attempts at Rikers and his efforts to get psychiatric help.
KALIEF BROWDER: I would say I committed suicide about five to six—five or six times.
MARC LAMONT HILL: OK, you attempted suicide five to six times.
KALIEF BROWDER: Yes.
MARC LAMONT HILL: All while still in prison?
KALIEF BROWDER: Yes.
MARC LAMONT HILL: Wow.
KALIEF BROWDER: And I tried to resort to telling the correction officers that I wanted to see a psychiatrist or counselor, something. I was telling them I needed mental help, because I wasn’t feeling right. All the stress from my case, everything was just getting to me, and I just—I just couldn’t take it, and I just needed somebody to talk to. I needed to just let—I just needed to be—I just needed to talk and be stress-free. But the correction officers, they didn’t want to hear me out. Nobody wanted to listen.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was your brother speaking to HuffPost Live before he committed suicide himself?
AKEEM BROWDER: Yeah. You know, my mother, she would have—if she were sitting here, she would have spoke of how like the trauma of having her son being lost to the system. The system has claimed already two of my family members, through depression, anxiety and stress. But she’s not here anymore either. And I’m realizing now that the depression that’s transpired from Kalief to my mother is also to my family members, where senators and everyone asks for us to, you know, go up, and we’ve got to push for reform, we’ve got to push for this law and that law. They ask of us, the family members, to speak and to come out. Yet, when is it that they’re going to realize these human families, these people, like myself or my brother, who’s still suffering with depression because losing our mother is the hardest thing we had to do—now we’re being asked to come up to Albany and force us to get out of our realm, where we want to be mourning of our family, but then does not provide help or services that could inevitably stop the cycle of depression, like therapy or counseling or something like that, where it stops this? Because you’ve already created a cycle, and it’s not going to stop until it consumes everyone that’s in that path.
AMY GOODMAN: Kalief—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Marc Levin, I just wanted to ask you—we only have about 30 seconds. Most New Yorkers, the only thing they ever—the only time they ever see Rikers Island is when they’re flying in to LaGuardia Airport on a plane. What you’re hoping they’ll get out of your film?
MARC LEVIN: Well, it’s no longer out of sight, out of mind. You know, we don’t have to think about Guantánamo. We don’t have to think about Abu Ghraib. But I think what you just heard, that, you know, solitary, especially for adolescents, it’s a form of torture. And we’ve been doing it right here. And it’s time to wake up. And it’s time to change who we are.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Akeem Browder, you’re now with Campaign to Shut Down Rikers. You lost your brother Kalief to the system, as well as your mother. And I want to thank Marc Levin, director of the film Rikers. It airs on WNET 13 on November 15th. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.