Whenever I think of the black women whose lives stop when a black man they care about goes to jail, I think about girlfriends and wives that might be like the character in Ava DuVernay's Middle Of Nowhere. For whatever reason, I don't think about the mothers as much -- even though that's the person who will usually defend a son even if he's a 55 year old serial killer.
But now I've gotten to hear of the heroism of Kalief Browder's mother.
If it weren't for Venida Browder, we wouldn't know Kalief Browder's story. We wouldn't know that Kalief's life began to end when there was a false accusation (mis-identification) over a stolen back pack, followed by the inability to get $3,000 bail together, and being put in solitary confinement at Rikers.
“If not for my mom, I don’t think I would’ve made it,” Kalief told me. For most of his time on Rikers, he was held in solitary confinement. “Imagine being in solitary for all that time with no books, no magazines,” he said. “Or walking around with the same clothes on every day, the same T-shirt, same underwear. I’ve seen people like that. They stink.” When Kalief was finally released from Rikers, he moved back into the two-story brick house where he had grown up. Venida could tell that he had changed—he paced around his bedroom, and talked to himself—and she tried to help him the best she could. But his mental-health problems were too severe. On June 6, 2015, he hanged himself at home from a second-floor window.
In the following months, Venida, who was fairly shy, became much more outspoken. Although she had serious health problems, she travelled to Washington, D.C., in July of 2015 to attend a press conference for “Kalief’s Law,” a bill intended to improve the treatment of young people in prison. She joined the advisory board of an organization called Stop Solitary for Kids. She spoke to reporters. In January of 2016, she participated in the American Justice Summit at John Jay College. Paul Prestia, who represented her in a wrongful-death claim against New York City, remembers going with her to a speaking event at the New School last April. Before she stepped onstage, he said that she seemed very nervous. But then she spoke for forty-five minutes about what she and Kalief had endured. “She got up there, and I was like, Wow!” he said. “She blew me away.”
Kalief Browder was broken by so many consecutive stints in solitary confinement. He wound up being in solitary confinement for 2 out of 3 years. He was arrested at 16 based on an eyewitness statement tat was wrong. He stayed in jail because he refused to plea bargain out and admit to something he didn't do.
Because he wouldn't play the game, because he refused to give up on going to trial and proving his innocence, the New York State justice system punished him by making him sit around waiting for a trial that never happened for 3 years.
- They put him on a gang ward when he wasn't in a gang. He was beaten daily
- They wouldn't let him take a shower for two weeks.
- They didn't take him outside for the 1 out of 24 hours he was owed
- The guards starved him
- They forgot to bring to him to court for his trial dates.
By the time Kalief got out of prison, he was too psychologically damaged to go on. He hung himself, at home, a couple of years after leaving prison.
A few days ago, a little more than a year after her son committed suicide, Venida Browder died of a heart attack. Many articles are saying she died of a broken heart. That's probably just about right.
Venida Browder's work on behalf of her son was partially successful, but too late for her son. In January of 2016, President Obama signed an executive order banning solitary confinement for minors in federal prisons. The president mentioned Kalief Browder during his speech on this subject.
Below is another interview she did for The Marshall Project, in efforts to make sure other minors don't wind up in solitary confinement. It was released on October 17 2016.
"WE ARE WITNESSES" (Marshall Project)
KALIEF'S TREATMENT BY THE NEW YORK STATE JUSTICE SYSTEM (Interviews)