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Wisconsin Pays Largest Civil Rights Settlement in State’s History –$18.9 Million – for Juvenile Offender’s Suicide Attempt

by Chad Marks and Derek Gilna

Sydni Briggs was 16 years old in July 2015 when she was remanded to a Wisconsin state youth prison for breaking into a store and stealing alcohol. She found herself alone in a cell at the Copper Lake School for Girls on November 9, 2015, and turned on her call light to get the attention of staff. The guards on duty were required to respond to the call light as soon as possible but failed to do so. One employee, a youth counselor, admitted that he saw the light but decided to take the trash out before checking on Briggs.

What happened next was shocking. Briggs was later found hanging in her cell with a torn T-shirt around her neck. She had no pulse and was not breathing. Miraculously, she was revived by prison staff with CPR and a defibrillator. She survived, but was in a coma for four months and suffered a brain injury that will require around-the-clock care for the rest of her life.

Briggs filed suit in federal court, arguing among other claims that staff at Copper Lake were deliberately indifferent to her serious mental health condition, as well as negligent in their failure to monitor her.

The facts of the case were plain. Staff at the facility knew that Briggs had committed prior acts of self-harm; in fact, three weeks earlier she had told a prison psychiatrist she was thinking about suicide. Guards were required to check her cell every 15 minutes but failed to do so. An audit conducted four months before Briggs attempted suicide found staff did not routinely respond to call lights. When Briggs activated her light, the guards simply ignored her. 

To make matters worse, evidence showed that prison worker Rosemary Esterholm signed off on logs that falsely indicated guards had checked the cells every 15 minutes around the time of Briggs’ suicide attempt. Another guard, Darrell Stezer, falsified logs in a similar manner. In March 2018, three Copper Lake staff members who were present or involved when Briggs hanged herself ended their employment at the facility – Esterholm, Stetzer and Andrew Yorde were either terminated or resigned.

With a mountain of damning evidence, the state settled the case with Briggs for $18.9 million in March 2018. Then-Governor Scott Walker signed legislation to close both Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills, a similar prison for male juveniles, by 2021. The bill also allowed the state to borrow $80 million to build other facilities to house juvenile offenders.

That was a smart move by the state, as the youth prison where Briggs nearly died had been rife with abuse and staff misconduct for years. Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Jon Litscher admitted as much in a statement released after the settlement was reached. 

“I took over as secretary of Wisconsin Department of Corrections in early March 2016 with a clear mandate from Governor Walker to make aggressive and widespread changes; it was clear that the Governor wanted us to act decisively, make needed reforms and hold ourselves accountable,” Litscher said.

Other lawsuits by young offenders at Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills include one filed by a juvenile whose arm was broken by guards, and another by two girls who alleged sordid and inhumane conditions of confinement. [See: PLN, March 2019, p.7]. Additionally, a class-action suit over the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement, among other issues, was filed in 2017 by the Wisconsin ACLU and Juvenile Law Center. 

According to the complaint in the latter case, “The State routinely subjects these youth to unlawful solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spraying. Prior to state and federal raids on the facility at the end of 2015, staff also regularly physically abused youth in the facility.... Many of these children are forced to spend their only free hour of time per day outside of a solitary confinement cell in handcuffs and chained to a table. Officers also repeatedly and excessively use Bear Mace and other pepper sprays against the youth, causing them excruciating pain and impairing their breathing.” 

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, U.S. District Court Judge James Peterson entered a preliminary injunction that stated: “Defendants are enjoined from using disciplinary or punitive restrictive housing or any other form of disciplinary or punitive solitary confinement,” and required the Wisconsin DOC to institute additional reforms. A permanent injunction and consent decree were entered in the case on October 31, 2018. The settlement includes provisions related to suicide prevention, the use of pepper spray and mechanical restraints, room confinement and solitary confinement, strip searches, staff training and ongoing monitoring of the consent decree. The state agreed to pay $885,000 for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees through June 18, 2018. See: J.J. v. Litscher, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wisc.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00047-jdp.

Juvenile facility staff are now required to attend a seven-week pre-service training academy, to wear body cameras and to record interactions with prisoners, among other sweeping changes. The DOC also hired a Juvenile Mental Health Director and new chief psychologist.

“The tragedy is that this was preventable and it didn’t require heroics or anything extraordinary to prevent it from occurring,” said attorney Eric Haag, who represented Briggs, in reference to her suicide attempt. “If people had competently done their jobs and fulfilled basic responsibilities this would not have happened.”

The Sydni Briggs of this world should not be found hanging in cells, and the large settlement and policy changes should help ensure that such disregard for the well-being of juvenile offenders is less likely to happen again – at least in Wisconsin. 

Of the $18.9 million settlement, the state’s insurers paid around $14.9 million; attorney fees and costs in the case totaled approximately $7.5 million. See: Briggs v. Yorde, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wisc.), Case No. 3:17-cv-00062-jdp. 


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