“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” ― Nelson Mandela
The story of Kalief Browder, 22, who hanged himself last Saturday at his mother’s New York apartment, has been widely reported. But have we really let it get to us? Will this be just another casualty in a litany of injustices, from which we turn away in anger or despair? Or can we see this tragic life, and every life, though the eyes of Jesus?
Arrested as a sixteen-year-old accused of stealing a backpack, Browder lost three years of his youth in New York’s notorious Rikers Island jails, much of it in solitary confinement, waiting for a trial to clear his name. Poor and black, he was just another of the more than two million Americans behind bars. Browder maintained his innocence and refused to plead guilty, even though he could have been released with time served. In the end he was freed – three years older and profoundly broken – without ever receiving a trial, because his accuser could no longer be located.
In a heartbreaking account in the New Yorker in October 2014, Jennifer Gonnerman detailed the abuse Browder suffered at the hands of prison guards, his neglect by overwhelmed and underfunded courts, and his ongoing struggle with depression as he attempted to resume normal life. Thankfully the story did spark outrage and concern, with celebrities Jay Z and Rosie O’Donnell reaching out to Browder, an anonymous citizen offering to pay his college tuition, and politicians from Bill de Blasio to Rand Paul calling for reform. Sadly, that wasn’t enough to save Browder.
While Browder’s story may be especially egregious, it does exemplify the failure of our society toward its young, its poor, its minorities, and its mentally ill – that is, our failure to heal the wounds we inflict. May God forgive us all.
We can’t just bury Kalief Browder and move on. We need to renew our efforts to build a society where such a thing never happens. And again, we need to let these words of Jesus speak to each of us: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”