In 2010, Kalief Browder was, by all accounts, a healthy, ordinary 16-year-old black teenager living in New York City. On June 6, he took his own life. On Thursday, 12 days later, a Supreme Court justice took notice.
Browder spent three years in Rikers Island without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. For two of those years, he was kept in “administrative segregation,” more commonly known as solitary confinement. He was subsequently released without ever being charged or tried for the alleged crime. Browder received national attention after The New Yorker reported on his story in October 2014. With the help of an anonymous benefactor, he enrolled in community college and tried to rebuild, but struggled with psychiatric issues he attributed to his isolation. He was 22 years old when he died. Politicians ranging from Mayor Bill de Blasio to Senator Rand Paul cited his case in the broader national discussion on criminal-justice reform.
Now, so has Justice Anthony Kennedy. In a powerful five-page concurrence in Davis v. Ayala, Kennedy criticized the widespread use of solitary confinement in American prisons, which he said affected at least 25,000 inmates in the United States. Among them was Browder, whom Kennedy directly invoked. His evidence ranged from the 1890 case In re Medley, in which the Court acknowledged that solitary confinement can lead to madness and suicide, to modern studies by psychologists and penologists. He cited a litany of possible side effects to prolonged isolation, including anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, and self-mutilation.