John Legend Says Kalief Browder Died ‘Because Our System Is Broken’


The news of 22-year-old Kalief Browder’s suicide (June 6) renewed a look at New York City’s municipal court system and the prison complex. Browder, who was incarcerated at age 16 in 2010 for an alleged robbery — without a trial — was about to return to court to face new charges, but the mental anguish he endured while in Rikers Island brought troubling flashbacks of ill treatment within the prison’s walls.

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In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Browder’s lawyer, Paul Prestia, said the cause for his death was likely due to the harsh and unsanitary conditions of solitary confinement, where Browden was placed for two out of the three years of his sentence. The mental strains he encountered of “Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time … those were direct contributing factors …That was the pain and sadness that he had to deal with every day, and I think it was too much for him,” he said.

The news recently sparked a response from John Legend, who wrote a moving essay on the occurrence for Vulture:

New York failed Kalief. The list of things that went wrong in his case begins with his first encounter with the NYPD, whose practice of targeting black teens is well documented. The idea that being accused of stealing a backpack would lead to his arrest and detention would be absurd if it weren’t actually tragic. He should not have been tried as an adult, or had prosecutors, defenders, and judges so overwhelmed with cases that he waited three years for trial, violating his constitutional right to swift justice. He should not have been held in an adult jail where he would spend 700 to 800 days of those three years in solitary confinement. He should not have spent one day being abused by guards or the others incarcerated there.

Read Legend’s pivotal piece in its entirety here.