The Chief News w/Report on Closure of Rikers w/Akeem Browder

A forum on Rikers Island’s future that pitted law-enforcement professionals against prison reformers Nov. 14 was contentious and sometimes overheated as they staked out familiar positions: one reformer insisted Rikers had abandoned rehabilitation in favor of retribution, while his adversaries said the jail system’s flaws would continue even if Rikers was shut down.

The temperature rose noticeably a half-hour into the event in a basement conference room at Nyack College in Battery Park when Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen arrived. He and Akeem Browder, the political activist and brother of the late Kalief Browder, whose ordeal as a teen inmate underscored the flaws of the entire city criminal-justice system, quickly squared off, talking over each other in disputes that sometimes continued while other panelists were speaking.

Akeem Browder, who raised the temperature in the room when he asserted that Mr. Kerik had logged time as an inmate in the same jail complex he once commanded—in fact, the former Commissioner was a graduate of the Federal prison system after being convicted of felonies related to his accepting a couple of hundred thousand dollars in home renovations and other favors from people doing business with the city and then lying about it—began his presentation by lamenting what the system had done to his brother, who spent three years behind bars for allegedly stealing a backpack.

He was finally released after a perversion of justice in which the Bronx District Attorney’s Office continually dragged out the legal proceedings even as the “victim” dropped out of sight.

Kalief Browder, a loner with no gang affiliations, became a target for beatings by both inmates and correction officers while spending two years of his time behind bars in solitary confinement, leaving irrevocably changed.

The cruelties visited upon him by the system at large were highlighted in a piece in the New Yorker that made him a symbol of injustice. His brother emphasized that Kalief entered Rikers at 16 with no mental problems, and after being released had gotten his general-equivalency diploma at Lehman College and had a 3.56 grade-point-average as a student at Bronx Community College. But the time spent at Rikers created a paranoia that followed him home and worsened until he took his own life at age 22.

An Outrageous Truth.

Akeem Browder noted that if his teenage brother had been convicted of the charge against him, the maximum sentence would have been the same three years he spent at Rikers, and as a juvenile he would have gotten off much easier than that had he been willing to plead guilty to a crime he insisted he didn’t commit.

He said that while a well-functioning correctional system was supposed to offer deterrence and rehabilitation, at Rikers, “Retribution…is the only thing that’s prevalent.”

Mr. Browder and Mr. Kerik got embroiled in another argument just as Mr. Husamudeen showed up in the midst of a discussion as to whether the jails in city neighborhoods could be part of mixed-use complexes that would include retail businesses, as the de Blasio administration envisions.


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