Kalief Browder has been out of jail for more than four months now, but the 20-year-old man who spent the last part of his teenage years behind bars still feels like a prisoner.
“A lot of times when I’m by myself and I go through my thoughts, I catch a lot of flashbacks when I was on [Rikers] Island,” Browder told HLN. “When I was starved and jumped by the corrections officers -- that was real hard. I never knew what it felt like to be starved at all until I went there. There were times they starved me during the holidays without any concerns about how I felt… it really brings out sad emotions and it stresses me out.”
Browder has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the City of New York, its police department, the Bronx District Attorney and a slew of others, including several corrections officers. The suit claims Browder spent more than 1,000 days in jail, including more than 400 days in solitary confinement. The charges against him, stemmed from a robbery he says he didn’t commit, were ultimately dropped in June. Browder attempted suicide at least six times behind bars, according to the suit, and instead of getting the mental health treatment he desperately wanted, he was allegedly met with volleys of punches at the hands of corrections officers.
Because of the pending lawsuit, the Bronx County District Attorney's Office has declined to comment extensively on the matter, but Steven Reed, a spokesman, told HLN all records related to the initial criminal case were sealed “as required by law once the charges were dismissed.”
The New York City Department of Law and the New York City Department of Corrections also declined to comment about specifics of the lawsuit because of the pending litigation.
The Department of Corrections did confirm that Browder arrived on Rikers Island on May 16, 2010, spent several stays in segregation, and was released on May 30, 2013. A statement released to HLN also said “inmates are placed in punitive segregation for violations of state law and/or departmental rules. Every inmate charged with committing such an infraction is afforded due process that includes an investigation, a hearing by trained and impartial adjudication personnel, and opportunities for appeal.”
The whole ordeal began in the wee hours of May 15, 2010 -- a night Browder said changed his life forever. He was a 16-year-old sophomore walking home with a friend from a party in the Bronx.
It was early -- about 3 a.m. -- when an officer approached Browder, allegedly telling him a witness in his police vehicle had identified him as “the person who robbed him” a few nights earlier.
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Paul Prestia, Browder’s civil rights attorney, told HLN the witness was a stranger to Browder. The man claimed Browder had pushed him up against a fence, taken his backpack -- which contained some electronics -- and punched him in the face.
Browder said that although he denied the allegations, he was arrested and charged as an adult with robbery in the second degree. When his family failed to meet the $10,000 bond, Browder, who had no record according to Prestia, was sent to Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
Browder ultimately would miss his sister’s wedding, the birth of his nephew, his own prom and his graduation. The lawsuit alleges Browder was falsely arrested, maliciously prosecuted, denied a speedy trial and even physically and emotionally abused while behind bars.
“It was really stressful, it was real scary. Every day I had to be scared about if somebody would come to try and cut me,” Browder said, fearing that other inmates would try to harm him to make a reputation for themselves inside the jail.
Prestia told HLN that while Browder sat in jail, police never checked out his alibi for the night of the robbery and never conducted a lineup, which Prestia said could have helped clear his client’s name. Prestia also accused the district attorney's office of dragging its feet on a case that could have been "tried in front of a jury in two days."
"Why did it take so long? It’s just such an egregious miscarriage of justice, at every level," Prestia said.
During one specific suicide attempt outlined in the lawsuit, Browder was allegedly thrown onto his bed by the corrections officers, who then started punching him in the head and body.
“If you don’t manage to kill yourself, they’re really going to harm you,” Browder said. “The first thing they did is they grabbed me and they cut me down. That’s when they slammed me on the bed and started jumping me.”
Browder was charged with allegedly assaulting a corrections officer during the incident but those charges were later dropped, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also claims corrections officers took matters into their own hands after Browder’s many suicide attempts, allegedly depriving him of food and stripping him of his bed sheets and books, instead of getting him psychiatric help.
In January of this year, Browder said, he refused a plea deal under which he would get time served if he’d admit to the robbery charges.
“Yes, I wanted to go home. It was hard for me to say, ‘I didn’t do it,’ for the fact that I wanted to go home,” Browder said. “The reason I didn’t take it is I didn’t do it… I didn’t feel the least bit comfortable saying, ‘I did it.’ I had to tell them, ‘No.’”
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Browder is back at home with his mom and his two older brothers, looking for part-time work while studying for his GED. But his days inside Rikers still haunt him. Just last week, Browder said he had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for five days after trying to hang himself and slit his wrists. He said it’s been hard to watch friends get their own places, start college and drive their own cars.
“There’s so many things I want to do,” Browder said. “My life isn’t situated to the point where I can do the things I want to do yet.”
Before his arrest, Browder had plans to become a social worker -- a dream he still hopes to achieve. Now, he’s mostly looking forward to going to counseling so he can undo some of the emotional damage he said was done to him during his three-year jail stint.
“He was deprived of those crucial teenage years when so much of who we are is developed,” Prestia said. “Just imagine spending one day in solitary confinement. All those nights he had to think about. All those sleepless nights he had, knowing he was an innocent person in all of this, being portrayed and prosecuted as a defendant when he’s clearly a victim.”
“Prior to going to jail, I never had any mental illnesses,” Browder said. “I never tried to hurt myself, I never tried to kill myself, I never had any thoughts like that. I had stressful times prior to going to jail, but not like during jail. That was the worst experience that I ever went through in my whole life.”