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Teen Locked Up 3 Years Without Trial: Jailhouse Abuse Caused My Mental Illness

A New York City teen says he endured three years of abuse in New York City’s notorious and often violent Rikers Island without a trial after someone on the street accused him of theft.

“This guy comes out of nowhere and says I robbed him,” Kalief Browder, who was 16-years old at the time, said. “And the next thing I know they are putting cuffs on me.  I don’t know this dude.  And I do over three years for something I didn’t do.”

After Browder’s family was unable to come up with the $10,000 bond to secure his release prior to trial, Browder was transferred to New York City’s Rikers Island where he spent the next three years, over one-third of that time in solitary confinement.  He also claims he routinely faced violence at the hands of the guards.

In a lawsuit filed by Browder after he was released without ever being convicted or tried for the alleged robbery, the now 20-year old said he was “deprived meals” by the guards and “physically assaulted and beaten” by both staff and inmates.  During his three-year confinement, he also attempted suicide six times.

During one suicide attempt, the guards allegedly beat Browder and refused him appropriate psychiatric services.

“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.”

As incredible as Browder’s story sounds, a recent review of the New York City’s jail’s treatment of the mentally ill showed that incidents of force used on inmates have more than tripled since 2004 in the 10-facility detainment complex.  During the last five years, cases of self-mutilation and suicide attempts have also increased by 75 percent.

The report also noted the increased use of solitary confinement to isolate self-harmers or those deemed mentally ill in the city jail may cause more cases of mental illness behind bars. New York University psychiatrist James Gilligan warned against the use of solitary confinement for all inmates, due to the potential damage done to an inmate’s mental health and the likelihood it may increase violence, not reduce it.

“Since prolonged solitary confinement can cause symptoms of mental illness to appear even in previously healthy individuals, we strongly recommend against imposing it as a punishment for a predetermined duration even on those inmates not deemed to be mentally ill,” Gilligan wrote in his report.

Browder, who spent over 400 days in solitary, is convinced in his case, his treatment in jail is to blame. “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.”

Since being released, he added he still has flashbacks to his painful time on Rikers Island.  “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.”

Photo Credit: Screenshot/ABC News

About the author

Tamar is a New York based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in over 15 publications. You can catch her work regularly on Issue Hawk, Latest, Jspace, and MediaGlobal.