Who Killed Kalief Browder?

Kalief Browder ended his own life after spending three years in a justice system that showed him no justice.

On Saturday, June 6, Kalief Browder ended his life by jumping out of a window with a cord around his neck.

Taken out of school and incarcerated at age 16, Browder spent three years in Rikers Island Prison, two of which were in solitary confinement. His alleged crime? Stealing a backpack.

Browder certainly had time to “think about what he had done.” He often spent 23 hours a day alone in a cell. He was also reportedly beaten by correction officers and other inmates on a regular basis.

Three years might seem like a long sentence for petty theft, but Browder was never actually found guilty. He was never even given the opportunity to stand trial. Refusing to accept wrongful guilt, Browder rejected the plea deals that were offered to him. When the charges were finally dropped, it was because prosecutors lost contact with their one and only witness. But three years had already passed while Browder awaited trial—three years that ultimately cost him his life. [1] 

Browder’s story is tragic and—tragically—not unique. Alongside his voice, we can hear a chorus of other African-American adolescents who have fallen prey to a broken criminal justice system. Sadly, racial minorities and children with disabilities are more likely to end up in that system, as they are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates and receive harsher sentences than their white peers. African-American students, specifically, are 3.5 times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled, an experience that can push them into the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

In a recent edition of Teaching Tolerance, we highlighted the school-to-prison pipeline. School practices that feed the pipeline include police presence at schools, harsh tactics such as physical restraint and zero-tolerance punishments that result in suspensions and out-of-class time. Though the vast majority of disciplinary offenses are nonviolent, zero-tolerance practices can lead to suspensions and arrests for these behaviors. During the 2011-2012 school year alone, the U.S. Department of Education reports that 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement (read more in “False Sense of Security”). 

Teaching Tolerance and the Southern Poverty Law Center have long advocated for reform to zero-tolerance and mass incarceration practices, practices that played roles in the death of Kalief Browder. We believe that you, our readers, know your students better than resource officers or the courts, making you uniquely empowered to keep students in the classroom and out of jail cells. We hope you join us in advocating for reform. As we all grieve the loss of Browder, let us keep his story and his memory alive as we work to support every student and reform a justice system that showed him no justice.

For resources on a teacher’s role in the school-to-prison pipeline, see A Teacher’s Guide to Rerouting the Pipeline.

Buchan is an intern with Teaching Tolerance.

[1] Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip, "Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide," The New York Times, June 8, 2015. 

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