Accused of Stealing a Backpack, High School Student Jailed for Nearly Three Years Without Trial

Kalief Browder / Image courtesy huffingtonpost.com

Kalief Browder / Image courtesy huffingtonpost.com

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

On the evening of May, 15, 2010, 17-year-old Kalief Browder had no idea his life was about to change. The chain of events that led to Browder’s bizarre life change began when he and his friend were walking through the Bronx coming home from a party and were stopped by police. Browder soon found himself surrounded by a police squad with a spot light blinding him. You would have thought he was being accused of murder, but in actuality he was framed for stealing a back pack.

The police informed Browder and his friend that a Mexican individual claimed they stole his back pack. Browder revealed to the police his personal items in the back pack he carried and insisted he did not steal the back pack. A police officer stepped away to speak with the alleged victim who was sitting in a police car. When he returned he informed Browder the accuser had changed his story to indicate his back pack was stolen a few weeks ago. Apparently, the information was enough to warrant a trip to the Bronx precinct. The police officer promised Browder his visit to the precinct would be short lived, but the nightmare was just beginning.

Browder was interrogated and strongly encouraged to take a plea deal if he wanted to go home soon. Browder adamantly refused to accept a plea bargain and insisted on his innocence. His friend was released, but Browder was retained because he was currently on probation for being present during an auto-theft and accident. Bail was set at $3000, which Browder’s family was unable to post.

Browder was soon on his way to Rikers Island. He was held without bail while the case literally crawled through the system. Browder was continually pressured to plea out, but he didn’t give in because he was innocent. Browder was adamant about getting a trial to prove his innocence, but every time he went before the judge the trial was delayed for various reasons. One of the main reasons for a trial failing to transpire was the overload of cases in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, which was clogging-up the court system, making it impossible for a short staffed judicial system to deliver.    

Weeks turned into months and months turned into years.

It didn’t take long before Browder was spending his days and nights in solitary confinement for minor infractions. His new home was the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, which everyone on Rikers calls the Bing. Housed in one of the island’s newer jails, the Bing has four hundred cells, each about twelve feet by seven.

Most people will take a plea just to get out, especially when put in solitary confinement, but not Browder. He was told if you would just take a plea we will let you out today. He persistently held out for a trial.

Being naïve to one of the dirty secrets of the justice system, what Browder didn’t realize was trials rarely happen in the Bronx.

Browder’s initial attorney was Mr. O’ Meara, a court-appointed defender who never visited his client. These lawyers were referred to as 18-B attorneys and only get paid $75 or $80 an hour for misdemeanors. They were so busy running around trying to make money that they have limited time to spend with clients.

Browder was in desperate turmoil with one-week trial requests turning into six-week delays. His fellow inmates advised Browder to request his lawyer to file a speedy-trial motion—a motion to dismiss the case, because it hadn’t been brought to trial within six months. The problem was Browder had yet to reach the six-month mark because of all the continuances.

It was not uncommon in the Bing for guards to often refuse to serve meals. Browder started a vigorous work-out routine when he entered Rikers Island because he could see the need for a fit body to survive the violent environment. Even with Browder’s regular work-out routine, he was disappearing. He recalls once being starved 4 times in a row. Browder wasn’t the only one, kids were drinking water all of the time to keep their stomachs filled.

These kid’s rights were being violated by correctional officers who were cowards that bullied adolescents. Staff made up their own rules. Inside the adolescent complex of Rikers Island, there was an addiction to using solitary confinement and brutal violence as punishment.

There was a reckless disregard for all kids in solitary confinement. Education for Browder consisted of dropping off school papers from the correctional school compound never to be picked up.  

It was Browder’s lucky day when Patricia DiMango was hired by the Bronx Judicial District in 2013 to review cases and clear them. Her job was to get weak cases dismissed, extract guilty pleas from defendants, or refer cases to trial in another courtroom. At the start of 2013, there were nine hundred and fifty-two felony cases in the Bronx, including Browder’s, that were more than two years old. Within the next twelve months, DiMango disposed of a thousand cases, some of them 5 years old. 

Di Mango was able to finally dismiss Browder’s case because she discovered the alleged victim, who was the only witness, fled back to Mexico, but this was after Browder had spent about 800 days in solitary confinement. By now, Browder had missed his junior year of high school, his senior year, graduation, and the prom. He was no longer a teen-ager; four days earlier, he had turned twenty.

Even though Browder is now free, life is not easy. He still feels the effects of the abuse he endured for three years. Browder is now more comfortable being confined to his room. Before spending time at Rikers Island Browder was known as a fun loving easy going teenager. Today he is a withdrawn young man.

Browder has been fortunate to have an attorney interested enough in his case to fight for his rights pro bono. Paul Prestia is an attorney located in the heart of Manhattan and is also a former assistant prosecutor in Brooklyn. He is filing a law-suit against New York City, the Bronx, the NYPD—the New York Police Department—Bronx district attorney and the Department of Corrections on Browder’s behalf.

Prestia believes the way juveniles are dealt with at Rikers Island is unconstitutional. Officials need to be accountable. Normal kids are coming out of Rikers Island with mistrust, irritability, and post-traumatic stress from being held in solitary confinement. Broken institutions produce broken individuals.  

Prestia makes his point by stating an example, “If you took a sixteen-year-old kid and locked him in a room for twenty-three hours, your son or daughter, you’d be arrested for endangering the welfare of a child.”

Browder confesses that no amount of restitution for his ordeal can make up for the emotional damage he carries from his time at Rikers Island.    

Despite what Browder has been through, he is employed by a jewelry store in Prestia’s office building and earned his GED. He has enrolled in community college and attends weekly counseling sessions.

Prestia said, “The million-dollar question is: When did they really know they didn’t have a witness? Did they really not know until 2013?”

NY City Correctional Dept. announced last week that they will stop using solitary confinement with juveniles. NY is one of 2 states still using solitary confinement to juveniles.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy which assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation and in-prison matters. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2019), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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