Youth Justice


“Solitary confinement is pretty horrible for anybody, but it’s especially horrible for a child. It is psychological torture.” – Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, author of Just Mercy

“When you go over the three years that he spent [in jail] and all the horrific details he endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teenager in New York City. He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another country. It was right here!” – Paul V. Prestia, Kalief Browder’s lawyer [to The New Yorker]

“Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid. I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.” – Kalief Browder to Jennifer Gonnerman, staff writer for The New Yorker

Nobody of any age should be held in jail without a trial for three years. No child or adolescent should be held in an adult jail. No child or youth should be housed in facilities where those entrusted to care for them violently assault them. Yet a 16-year-old accused of stealing a backpack was kept in one of the most violent adult jails in the United States, Riker’s Island in New York City, for three years without a trial. This was morally scandalous and inhumane. Even worse, he spent more than two years of that time in solitary confinement, locked up alone except to go to the shower, the recreation area, the visit room or the medical clinic. This was torture. The suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder on June 6, barely two years after his release and return home, was the final horror in his tragic and brutal journey into the depths of the adult criminal justice system in New York City and state.

At Riker’s, Kalief was cruelly beaten by juvenile gangs, and beaten by a guard as he was calmly walking from solitary confinement to the shower. This violent abuse was caught on video and made public in April by an investigative reporter from The New Yorker. Other alleged abuses were not: the cruel guards who denied him meals, medical care, trips to the shower and extended his time in solitary confinement by making up disciplinary problems.

It should surprise no one that a teenager subjected to this continuous torture; a teenager who maintained his innocence and just wanted his right to a day in court to prove it; a teenager who turned down plea deals repeatedly although it would have meant he could go home immediately; a teenager with no history of mental illness before Riker’s Island tried to commit suicide while held in solitary confinement for two of his three years there. It is beyond shameful that he was held without a trial, without being proven guilty and because he was a poor young Black male. This travesty was and is preventable and must be prevented for all youths at risk of such abuse.

If New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators act immediately before this state legislative session ends June 17, 2015 to raise the age of criminal responsibility, as 48 states have done, more tragedies and suffering like Kalief Browder’s might be avoided. And youths still at Riker’s might have reduced suffering and pain.

Kalief Browder’s cruel and unjust treatment began May 15, 2010, when he was picked up with a friend in the Bronx. He shared his story later with a reporter from The New Yorker to make sure this would never happen to anyone else. Kalief was stopped for allegedly stealing a backpack earlier that evening. According to the report, he maintained his innocence and offered to let the police search his pockets. The only evidence against him was the testimony of the alleged victim he never got the chance to confront. Eyewitness identification is notoriously unreliable.

Kalief Browder was immediately funneled into the adult criminal justice system because of the unjust lottery of geography and poverty. New York remains one of only two states in our country that still automatically treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. More than a century ago, states began to legislate that children should be treated as children to prevent the inhumane, dangerous, and ineffective practice of putting them in adult jails. New York and North Carolina should end this practice immediately. Not one more young life should be ruined or tragically lost to Riker’s preventable torture and violence.

We have long known that putting children in adult jails puts them in harm’s way. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) first documented and began advocating for changes to end these harms nearly 40 years ago after visiting 500 jails across America and publishing in 1976 our deeply disturbing findings in a report on Children in Adult Jails. We found children incarcerated with adults suffered increased rates of physical abuse, like Kalief did. Today they are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilities. In light of this evidence, it is outrageous that any state today would subject its teenagers to any adult jail especially like Riker’s Island whose culture of violence is notorious. New York must stop right now.

The unjust criminalization of the poor is another reason Kalief Browder ended up at Riker’s Island. His family could not afford to hire an attorney or pay the $3,000 bail to keep him home to await a trial that never took place over three long years. Being poor, Black and male, the odds were high that he would end up in the Cradle to Prison PipelineTM and suffer preventable death.

Dr. Sean Joe, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, and an authority on suicidal behavior among African American males, says that among Black Americans, Black males between the ages of 15 to 24 are most likely to commit suicide. “The suicide of Kalief Browder highlights the glaring gap between the alarming psychiatric needs of black boys and men and the absence of effective treatments; a justice system that enacted psychological torture because a putative stolen backpack mattered more than the life and future of a black teen; and the importance to address the unattended psychological consequences resulting from the feverous adjudication, prosecution, and sentencing of black boys and men without regard for their mental health.”

More than a thousand days after arriving at Riker’s Island, Kalief Browder was abruptly released four days after his 20thbirthday. He had spent most of the 17 previous months in solitary confinement. The charges against him were dismissed. It is unclear when the only evidence against him disappeared, and when and if the “victim” had returned to Mexico and could no longer be found. Two years later, after more suicide attempts and mental health hospitalizations, Kalief Browder took his life at home. He was 22-years-old.

His tragically short life has already made a difference. Mayor Bill de Blasio led New York City to ban solitary confinement for all juveniles when he heard Kalief’s story. But the Governor and state legislature without another moment’s delay must also take action on the age at which children can be placed in adult jails as the Governor’s Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice recommended. No other child or youth should be at risk of Kalief Browder’s fate and our nation needs to change the way we treat Black boys and men and recognize that all lives matter equally.

Albert Camus, the great French Nobel Literature Laureate, speaking at a Dominican Monastery in 1948 said: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.”  He described our responsibility as human beings “if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it” and “to refuse to consent to conditions which torture innocents.”  “I continue,” he said “to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.” And so must every one of us including our elected officials who must be held accountable. Only then will the cries of the prophets for justice and peace and America’s pretentions to be a just nation become a lasting reality.

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Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.