BRONX, N.Y. (CN) — A teenager endured three years of abuse at Rikers Island and inadequate mental health care that led to him taking his own life, his family claims in a $20 million wrongful-death suit against New York City.
Kalief Browder was just "sixteen years old and showed no signs of mental illness" when he was arrested in 2010 for reportedly stealing a backpack, according the Oct. 14 complaint filed in the Bronx County Supreme Court. Unable to make the $3,000 bail, his parents allege, Browder endured three years of "systemic and agonizing mental and physical abuse - tantamount to torture" at Rikers Island while awaiting trial.
The Bronx teenager spent two of those three years in solitary confinement.
The harrowing experience led Browder, who steadfastly maintained his innocence and reportedly rejected a plea deal, to attempt suicide by hanging five times inside his solitary cell. On more than one occasion he was "assaulted by corrections officers instead of being given proper mental care," according to the complaint.
Browder was eventually released from Rikers in May of 2013, and the criminal charges against him were dismissed by a judge. But court documents state the "psychological damage" to him was "irreparable", and he attempted suicide three more times upon his release. His family claims on each of these occasions he was "released prematurely by NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation without proper follow-up care or oversight," and was "not offered or remanded for long-term psychiatric care."
Having never recovered from the psychological trauma, Browder hung himself in his family home in the Bronx in June of 2015.
The wrongful death suit seeks $20 million in damages and names the New York City Department of Correction, the Bronx district attorney's office, the NYPD and various city health agencies as defendants. It accuses the city of malicious prosecution for not properly investigating the crime for which Browder was charged and denying him the right to a fair and speedy trial. It also claims defendants "inhumanely and cruelly" punished Browder with solitary confinement "having only been accused of a crime."
A month after Browder's death, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $17.8 million bail-bond reform program meant to keep low-risk pretrial defendants out of Rikers Island. De Blasio and DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte have also ended the use of solitary confinement as punishment for 16 and 17-year-old inmates.
The filing of the suit comes on the same day Kalief's mother, Venida Browder, died of complications of a heart attack in a Bronx hospital. Her New York City based attorney, Paul Prestia, told the NY Daily News, "The stress from this crusade coupled with the strain of the pending lawsuits against the city and the pain from the death were too much to for her to bear. In my opinion, she literally died of a broken heart."
The New York City Law Department responded to a request for comment that it will "review the complaint upon formal receipt of service."
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