US man held as teen at Rikers without trial kills himself

A view of buildings on Rikers Island penitentiary complex in New York on May 18, 2011 (AFP Photo/Don Emmert) (AFP/File)

New York (AFP) - An American man held for nearly three years as a teenager without trial at a notorious New York prison who later inspired efforts to reform the complex has committed suicide, officials said Monday.

Kalief Browder died at his home in the Bronx on Saturday. His body was discovered by his family. He was 22.

Browder was arrested in 2010 and taken to Rikers Island as a 16-year-old for allegedly stealing a backpack, a crime he said he did not commit.

The New Yorker magazine took up his case. He was kept for two years in solitary confinement and had attempted to kill himself several times.

Rare surveillance footage, obtained by the magazine in April, showed him abused on two separate occasions. In 2012, a guard escorted a handcuffed Browder to the shower, and violently hurled him to the floor.

In 2012, another clip showed him being attacked by nearly a dozen other inmates after he punched a gang member who spat in his face.

Browder's willingness to speak publicly about his ordeal helped persuade New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to introduce reforms to limit violence and stop solitary confinement for young inmates.

His case attracted interest from celebrities such as rap mogul Jay-Z and talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, who met him. Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul sent his condolences Sunday.

In a statement released to at least two media outlets, the Browder family blamed his death on his treatment in jail.

"He ultimately was unable to overcome his own pain and torment which emanated from his experiences in solitary confinement," the family said.

"We ask that the mayor and every public official in New York City take every action possible to ensure that no other person in New York City will ever again be forced to live through all that Kalief endured."

De Blasio called his death a tragedy.

"This is very, very painful and a lot of us got to know the details of what he went through and there is just no reason he should have gone through that ordeal," he told reporters on Monday.

"A lot of the changes we are making at Rikers Island right now are the result of the example of Kalief Browder. So I wish -- I deeply wish, we hadn't lost him but he did not die in vain."

Browder was released in 2013 when charges were dropped. He enrolled at a community college but suffered from depression and had spent time in hospital, The New Yorker reported.

Rikers Island is one of the largest municipal jails in the United States with an average daily population of 14,000. Most inmates are in pre-trial detention.

Prosecutors last year uncovered "a pervasive and deep-seated culture of violence" at the jail in the East River and alleged that guards use excessive force against its youngest inmates.

In December, then US attorney general Eric Holder said he was taking legal action to ensure that vital reforms were implemented.