Heartbreak and Resolve in the Death of #KaliefBrowder
- New York City 06/18/2015 by Linda Perry (WBAI News)

New York City has been gripped by heartbreak, the heartbreak of young men committing suicide who were incarcerated at Rikers, the heartbreak of Blacks and Latinos detained, awaiting trial, unable to make bail.

On Tuesday evening there was a vigil in Union Square for Kalief Browder. Mourners held signs which said, #Justice4Kalief, #EyesonRikers, Adolescents Are Not Adults. Photos of Browder were handed out. The reverse side said Rest in Power - Kalief Browder (1993-2015).  And there was a quote by the young man, “ I always believed in standing up for what I felt was right.. If I would’ve just pled guilty then my story would’ve never been heard. Nobody would’ve took the time to listen to me. I’d have just been another criminal.”

The 23 year old committed suicide on June 6th. He was incarcerated for more than three years on charges of stealing a backpack before being released in 2012 when his case dismissed.  Three years at Rikers starting when he was just 16 years old. Travis Morales is with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network’s Steering Committee. “There’s a whole epidemic of brutality, torture and murder of Black and Latino youth, either at the hands of police, the hands of prison guards or driving people insane to where they take their own lives. That’s how horrible the conditions are."

Johnny Perez reads a letter he penned to Kalief Browder. Perez was incarcerated.  He knows first hand what it’s like to be isolated, confined. He feels like we failed Browder. He says it’s not just a black/white issue.  It’s a human issue. “How is it that a 16 year old can be incarcerated for 3 years and to be let out and nobody asks, are you ok? And as a result of that, he succeeded in committing suicide. This wasn’t his first time. This wasn’t his second time. He finally succeeded. We ignored him and we have to force our legislators to take action.”

And then there's Kenan Davis, the 18 year old who hanged himself at Rikers on June 10th after spending less than a week at the prison. “If someone is willing to kill themselves in order to get out of that cell, I have to ask myself what’s going on in that cell that you’re willing to die to get out.”

“If you would all raise your right hand …

The New York City Council is looking into bail reform. Council Member Rory Lancman said, “Our bail system is broken. Too many people are detained on Rikers not because they have been convicted of a crime, but simply because they are too poor to make bail. This hurts defendants and it hurts taxpayers too, who pay $125 million each year to keep pretrial detainees on Rikers.”

At the City Council hearing on Wednesday, Jamie Fellner, Senior Advisor with Human Rights Watch testified. She said one of the problems is judges don’t need to explain their bail decisions. “What dictates their bail is, frankly, what the prosecutors ask for…the higher the bail amount the prosecutor asks, the higher amount the judge will probably set. Prosecutors need to be called to account too. There needs to be more transparency there.”

Fellner says many times prosecutors ask for bail because of a prior record, but research shows prior records don’t indicate a flight risk, failure to appear does, but not prior records. “The bottom line. I think NYC doesn’t have a problem with failure to appear. You’ve got great rates and if you made it easier for people to show up you get even lower rates...There’s no data that suggests that people who are released pending the determination of their case commit violent crimes.  They may get busted for drugs again, but that’s not the issue you should be depriving their liberty for, to keep them from using drugs in the short term.”

Meanwhile NY Senator Daniel Squadron co-sponsored Kalief’s Law to fix the speedy trial law following the death of Kalief Browder. “In New York City defendants average waiting is 594 days before going to trial. That’s nearly two years.  Look, the case of Kalief Browder is outrageous, shameful and tragic and sadly it is also not unique.” 

Kelsey Deavelar is is a social worker with Brooklyn Defenders Services. She visits clients at Rikers regularly. “And I think we have these stereotypes about who’s in jail and truth is at Rikers people can’t afford bail. It’s all about this money issue and then they go to Rikers and they’re treated as though they’re less than. They’re dehumanized and they’re tortured. The truth is we’re ignoring the torture that’s occurring right here in our city. 

Meanwhile NYC Council Speaker Mark-Viverito has proposed that the City create a bail fund for certain non-violent defendants.  You can read about Mayor de Blasio's Justice Reboot program to modernize the criminal justice system here