Families hold tearful memorial service in Lower Manhattan for those who died in solitary confinement

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Families and advocates carry a mock coffins through the streets.
Photo by Dean Moses

Through tears and heartache, family members and criminal justice reform advocates hosted a procession in Lower Manhattan on Monday calling for an end to solitary confinement on two morbid anniversaries.

June 7 marked two years since Layleen Polanco perished in solitary confinement and Kalief Browder died six years prior on June 4, 2015. Families of the pair who never made it out of the justice system arrived outside 100 Centre Street on Monday morning with time weighing heavy on their shoulders.

Joining Jails Action Coalition (JAC) and the members of the #HALTsolitary Campaign, siblings of the dead Akeem Browder and Melania Brown have been fighting day after day, week after week, to ensure their loved ones did not die in vain.

Melania Brown weeps at the loss of her sister. Photo by Dean Moses
Brown is enraged and heartbroken. Photo by Dean Moses

The call to action was less of a protest and more of a memorial service. Attendees gathered in a circle in the looming shadow of New York County Criminal Court clutching flowers as speakers shared emotional memories of the brutal ways they lost their loved ones.      

“We have suffering in our families. We have suffering in our hearts, and we too suffer with them so I ask that this march, this protest, this voice be heard by everyone today,” Akeem Browder said, who founded the Kalief Browder Foundation in memory of his late brother.

Browder feels that his brother should have been the last person to suffer solitary confinement in Rikers Island — enduring the isolation for two years — which he says ultimately led to Kalief’s suicide by hanging. Kalief was detained for allegedly stealing a backpack containing valuables but maintained his innocence.

The old and young arrived to show solidarity. Photo by Dean Moses

“The torture of our families should not happen. We are standing in front of this court because these are the ones that decide the pain of our families and yet it shouldn’t be this way. It shouldn’t be this way where anyone has to suffer — whether innocent or guilty,” an anguished Browder said. “We are doing time, but they say correction but there is no corrective behavior, look at Kalief! There was no corrective behavior! He didn’t do anything wrong, but instead he regressed because of this. My youngest brother was tortured, who right now could have been anything he wanted to be.” 

Akin to a wake, participants concentrated around a mock coffin inscribed with the names of both Kalief Browder and Layleen Polanco. Like any grieving family at a funeral, Melania Brown was overcome with anguish.

Unable to hold back the tears, Brown wept and roared at her transgender sister’s untimely passing. She cited that in June 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to end solitary confinement while referencing the case of Layleen Polanco who died in her cell in 2019 alone after suffering a seizure. She died just nine days into a 20-day sentence for misdemeanor sex work and drug possession.

Akeem Browder and Melania Brown remember their siblings. Photo by Dean Moses

“I’m praying that my sister’s death ends solitary confinement, ends the torture of humans,” Brown began, pointing to nearby officers and calling them “thugs in uniforms.”

Although Black and Brown individuals suffer in the system at a higher rate, Brown says that the problem is not a race issue stating that the guards who refused to help her sister were Black themselves. Instead, she declares the issue is dehumanization perpetrated by those in power.

“Today my sister took her last breath while two correctional officers watched her die. They could have helped her. They could have saved her. She could have been her today if they just helped her. Instead, they laughed at her. They laughed at her like she was a big show. These thugs in uniforms made a false police report,” a tearful Melania Brown said.

Carrying the coffin through Foley Square. Photo by Dean Moses

The group lifted the cardboard coffin onto their shoulders and solemnly marched through the roadway toward City Hall while singing: “No more torture, no more pain, we the people can’t take the shame.”

Raising their fists skyward, they passed through Foley Square before stopping outside the gated Broadway entrance to City Hall where advocates called out de Blasio for failing to put an end to solitary confinement, stating that his proposal on punitive segregation simply changes the name to a progression model based on three tiers for a “risk management accountability system.”

Marchers are demanding an immediate and complete end to solitary confinement, ensuring that both the basic minimum standards in city jails for a 14-hour day outside of the cell including meaningful socialization and programming.  

At the gates to City Hall, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined the rally, lending his voice to the cause. 

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined the rally at the gates to City Hall. Photo by Dean Moses

“I want everybody who is on Rikers Island to be safe. This system, unfortunately, causes Black and Brown people to sometimes even turn against each other, because even when I’m there the people who are housed and the people who are working there are Black and Brown and they look like me and you. That’s what this system does, it pits us against each other. I believe we can keep people safe without torture,” Williams said.

Those at the rally are asking the public to join a virtual meeting held by the Board of Corrections on Tuesday at 9 a.m. to offer testimony regarding solitary confinement.  

In response to the rally, Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Peter Thorne told amNewYork Metro: 

“We have dramatically reduced the use of punitive segregation and recently committed to ending its use entirely- making us the first city in the country to do so. Protecting the safety and well-being of those who work and live in our facilities has been our top priority, and as the federal monitor recently noted even amidst the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, New York City has continued to be a national leader in ending mass incarceration and reforming punitive segregation.”

Attendees held flowers and raised fists. Photo by Dean Moses
Those at the rally called for an end to solitary confinement. Photo by Dean Moses