Akeem Browder celebrated what would have been his youngest brother’s 23rd birthday by smashing a pinata crafted to look like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“That’s what he deserves,” Akeem growled as he punched and kicked the papier-mache caricature.
Instead of candy, pictures of Rikers Island guards abusing a then teenage boy spilled out of the pinata’s hollow torso. As Akeem spread the images over hot sidewalk outside the Bronx Supreme Court, a rubber “Live For Real” bracelet wiggled around his right hand.
After spending three years at Rikers Island on charges of stealing a backpack, which were later dropped, Akeem’s brother, Kalief, killed himself at their mother’s house in 2015. He was just 22.
While navigating the darkness that inevitably followed, Akeem started the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers, a grassroots collection of activists dedicated to the swift closure of Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex and one of the country’s most notorious.
Those involved meet regularly to plan events in hopes of drawing attention to Kalief’s death and convincing politicians to reform the criminal justice system the group believes caused it.
Police arrested Kalief in May 2010 on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Then just 16 years old, he spent the next three years awaiting trial at Rikers Island. While there, video surveillance from the jail showed guards and fellow inmates violently attacking him.
“You think your clock is ticking, but at Rikers, you’re being tortured and abused. You’re missing out on life,” Akeem told Business Insider at the protest. “That’s what they did to him.”
When prosecutors couldn’t proceed with his case, Kalief was released in 2013. In the years after his time behind bars, he struggled with depression and paranoia, eventually pushing the young black man to kill himself.
Now, Akeem wants the whole system to pay for his brother’s pain. For the march on the courthouse, on Kalief’s first birthday since his suicide, Akeem ordered three pinatas designed to look like three politicians: de Blasio, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte.
In Akeem’s mind, these are the people responsible, at the highest level, for Kalief’s death.
Rikers Island sits on a nearly 400-acre island in the East River. The 10 jails across the facility, from juvenile to all-women buildings, hold nearly 10,000 inmates.
The campaign lists seven reasons New York State needs to shut the entire operation down:
- Rikers is racist.
- Rikers punishes poor people.
- Rikers breeds physical and sexual violence.
- Rikers abuses children and people with mental illness.
- Rikers acts as a prison, not a jail.
- Rikers is a waste of public spending.
- Rikers is a torture chamber.
As protesters marched around the courthouse, they carried signs with each of these points.
Statistics support many of the most eye-opening claims.
In 2015, violence hit an all-time high at Rikers, despite fewer inmates, according to the New York Daily News. Although it’s likely much higher, recent federal statistics show the rate of sexual violence by staff and other inmates reported by women inmates at two Rikers facilities is almost triple the national average.