The monetary settlement is the largest reported award in any Pennsylvania case involving the death of a person in custody and brings about policy changes for staff training, medical care, and OC-spray use on incarcerated persons with respiratory illnesses and disabilities.
September 8, 2021
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org William Lukas, Director of Communications • Abolitionist Law Center
PHILADELPHIA – The family of Tyrone Briggs, a 29-year-old Black man with asthma who was killed by staff at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy in 2019, have reached a settlement with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC). The settlement amounts to a total $8,500,000 and ushers in policy changes and medical care protocols related to the use of oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray on incarcerated persons living with respiratory illnesses and disabilities.
The settlement comes six months after Tyrone’s mother, Shaleda Busbee, represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP, filed suit against the DOC’s prison administration and SCI-Mahanoy staff to hold them accountable for Tyrone’s tragic and preventable death.
“This historic settlement recognizes both the extraordinary misconduct of prison employees who caused Tyrone Briggs’ death and the extraordinary trauma caused to Tyrone’s family,” said Jonathan H. Feinberg, an attorney with the Kairys, Rudovsky firm. “It stands as a message to jail and prison staff everywhere: when you violate the law, you will be held accountable.”
On November 11, 2019, Tyrone was brutalized with multiple cans of OC spray, unloaded by prison guards who proceeded to restrain him during an altercation with another incarcerated person in the yard. After being tackled and handcuffed by the guards, he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” as he attempted to walk to the prison infirmary for treatment. Instead of being treated for an asthma attack that was impairing his breathing, Tyrone’s requests for medical care were ignored as staff moved him from the yard to the infirmary to the solitary confinement unit in less than 20 minutes. Despite his inability to breathe and his losing consciousness prior to arrival in the solitary unit, Tyrone was placed in an empty cell without medical attention while he continued to asphyxiate due to the OC-triggered asthma attack. Although he was under observation, DOC staff did not intervene until well after he had become fully unresponsive. By the time medical staff came to assess him, he had already died.
In the days that followed Tyrone’s death, the DOC suspended more than a dozen medical staff and correctional officers, while parents Shaleda and Montrell ceased their homecoming plans for Tyrone: his death came soon before he was eligible for parole after serving 13 years in prison since the age of 15.
Shaleda filed suit against the DOC in federal court on December 22, 2020, and, in her complaint alleged that the defendants engaged in excessive force, an unconstitutional denial of medical care, and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all of which led to Tyrone’s death.
As part of the settlement, in addition to the payment of monetary damages, the DOC agreed to institute critical changes to prison staff training on OC spray and medical care protocols concerning the use of OC spray against individuals incarcerated in DOC facilities. Under the agreement, training on the heightened risk that OC spray poses to incarcerated asthmatics is now mandated for all correctional staff new hires, as is annual training for all medical staff who oversee the care of incarcerated persons living with respiratory illnesses and disabilities. The settlement also calls for increased medical examinations, observations, and contact with on-call medical providers when an incarcerated person living with respiratory illnesses and disabilities comes into contact with OC spray.
“This historic settlement not only reflects the enduring strength of the Busbees, but also reflects the strength of organized resistance to the brutality and inhumanity meted out by the prison system. Tyrone’s life was treated as if he was disposable,” said Robert Saleem Holbook, Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “Disposable is how so many incarcerated people, especially people living with disabilities and chronic illnesses, are deemed by the prison guards and administration. This case underscores the power of litigation and advocacy centered by victims of the carceral state. It is a reminder that people in prison are not disposable and that we will bring serious consequences if they are treated as such.”
Shaleda Busbee, the Administrator of the Estate of Tyrone Briggs, was the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The DOC, Superintendent DelBalso, Deputy Superintendent Stetler, and 11 John Does were the defendants. The case was filed in the federal court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on December 22, 2020.
Click here to view the settlement agreement and release of claims.
“Pa. prisons pledge reform and pay $8.5 million after Philly man died from pepper spray” by Samantha Melamed for The Philadelphia Inquirer (09/08/2021)