3 years at Rikers Island pushed his brother to suicide. Now he’s running for mayor to shut it down.

By Reed Dunlea
November 7, 2017

On June 16, 2015, Akeem Browder lost his younger brother.

Kalief Browder was arrested in the Bronx in 2010, when he was 16 years old. He was accused of stealing a backpack that contained cash, a credit card, a camera and an iPod.

For the next three years, Kalief was locked up at Rikers Island, a 400-acre jail complex in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. Approximately 10,000 inmates sit on Rikers every day; most have not been convicted of a crime, but are awaiting trial.

Kalief was routinely beaten by both other inmates and guards (Rikers has come under fire for its culture of violence). He spent approximately 800 of his 1,000 days on Rikers in solitary confinement. Former President Obama even pointed to his situation as an example of the problems with solitary confinement, and Mayor Bill De Blasio has since announced his plan to close Rikers over the next 10 years.

While Kalief was at Rikers, he refused to accept a plea bargain, and thus a conviction and admission of guilt. Over those three years, he maintained his innocence, and the case was eventually thrown out after the Bronx District Attorney’s office was unable to produce a witness.

In 2013, Kalief was released, after having never stood trial. And even though he was attending community college, was receiving support and attention from celebrities like Jay-Z and Rosie O’Donnell, the trauma he endured proved to be too much. He took his own life. Kalief and Akeem’s mother Venida found Kalief hanging from his bedroom window. On October 14, 2016, Venida died of a “broken heart.”

“They already took my mother, they already took my brother,” Akeem said as he pondered his campaign for mayor of New York City. “You know what? I have nothing else to lose.”

But Kalief was not the first brother to go to jail. In 1997, Akeem was arrested, initially under suspicion of being the “Bronx rapist,” who was wanted for a string of seven rapes in public places. Akeem was 15 years old, and had engaged in what he claims to be consensual oral sex with his then-girlfriend, who was 12 years old, while they were cutting class. He spent eight months in prison upstate, convicted of sodomy and deviate sexual intercourse, as the woman was a minor. He is a registered sex offender. He was also convicted of burglary and identity theft for stealing a credit card more recently, in 2006.

Soffiyah Elija is the Executive Director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, who work with the families of prisoners. She says that Akeem’s response to what happened to his brother is a unique one.

“With the work that we do, it includes families who have had their loved ones beaten to death in prison, or if they survived, maimed traumatized. That’s never the idea of running for political office to do something about it. It’s actually quite the opposite, people tend to go into a shell and tend to withdraw. Not only the victim, but their family members.”

But, she says that by getting involved to seek change, they can break their silence. “That takes away that feeling of helplessness and hopelessness.”

The incumbent Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio is widely expected to win a second term on Tuesday. An October poll found that 61 percent of likely voters were planning on voting for him, with Republican Nicole Malliotakis following in second, and independents Richard “Bo” Dietl and Sal Albanese behind her. Akeem, and other third-party candidates, were not listed in the poll.

Akeem points to the majority of New Yorkers who don’t vote, and still claims he will win. When asked if was running to win, he responded, “What kind of a question is that?”

“We need transparency, accountability and we need New Yorkers to be engaged,” Akeem said.