$8.5 settlement reached in death of asthmatic prison inmate

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has agreed to pay $8.5 million to the family of an asthmatic Philadelphia man who died after pepper spray was used on him at a state prison nearly two years ago.

The agreement filed Tuesday in federal court in western Pennsylvania in the lawsuit filed by the family of 29-year-old Tyrone Briggs also includes a pledge by the department to implement new protocols on the use of pepper spray, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Briggs was doused with pepper spray at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy in November 2019 and died after he was reportedly heard telling staff, "I can’t breathe." His mother, Shaleda Busbee, said she hopes the agreed-upon changes will protect others from similar life-threatening situations.

Thirteen staff members were suspended, and while details of subsequent disciplinary action by the department has not been released, press secretary Maria Bivens said "involved security and medical staff members received discipline up to and including termination."

After the use of pepper spray was authorized in federal prisons in 2016, state lawmakers passed a law requiring that all state corrections officers be issued pepper spray. Purchase orders indicate the department has pepper balls, projectiles, fogging devices and crowd-control sprays, the paper said.

Bivens said pepper spray is "typically less harmful than some other applications of physical force," but uses of pepper spray and other types of force "are always viewed as serious matters within a correctional setting and are constantly reviewed to see if the use was appropriate or if a lesser use of force could have been applied."

Briggs was arrested at age 15 in the rape at gunpoint of a 13-year-old girl and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years. The lawsuit alleged that an officer tried to break up an altercation using prolonged streams of pepper spray rather than one or two quick bursts, and one stream was aimed at Briggs' face after he was restrained and prone.

After he said he couldn't breathe, according to the complaint, he struggled on a slow walk to the infirmary and waited a half hour for treatment, but was only given an inhaler. Taken to a solitary confinement cell, he soon collapsed and died, the lawsuit said.

Abolitionist Law Center lawyer Bret Grotes said prison policy already bars pepper spray use on people with asthma during planned incidents such as cell extractions. In the future, he said, all staff will receive training on how pepper spray affects people with respiratory conditions and anyone with such a condition subjected to it must have their oxygen levels measured and be reviewed by the chief medical official on duty.



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