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Lawsuit Over Pennsylvania Prisoner’s Fatal Asthma Attack Allegedly Triggered by Excessive Use of Pepper Spray

According to court documents, Tyrone Briggs, 29, was on the recreation yard at State Correctional Institute (SCI) Mahanoy when he was attacked by another prisoner and forced to defend himself, Numerous guards approached the scene, but received a radio order not to physically intervene. Instead, they were told to use oleoresin capsicum (pepper) spray.

The guards were allegedly trained to use only one or two quick bursts of pepper spray and were aware that a prolonged use of it was dangerous. However, they were not trained about the heightened risk that pepper spray, which causes inflammation in the lungs, poses to asthmatics like Briggs.

One guard emptied nearly an entire canister of pepper spray on Briggs and the other prisoner in a continuous spray. Briggs tried to move away from the spray but was continuously targeted by the guard and a second guard who also sprayed him for a prolonged period.

After the second canister was emptied, five or six guards rushed Briggs and threw him to the ground where he was restrained. Then a guard “gratuitously unloaded yet another can of [pepper] spray directly at [his] face while he was restrained on the ground.”

Briggs immediately showed signs of respiratory distress and repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” Nonetheless, he was left on the recreation yard for an extended period without medical treatment.

Briggs was finally taken to the prison infirmary; he had to wait behind the prisoner who attacked him to be treated. When he was finally seen by a medical provider — 30 to 45 minutes after being sprayed — he was given an inhaler. This did not sufficiently restore his ability to breathe, but he was cleared to leave the infirmary without receiving any other medical treatment.

He was taken to the Restricted Housing Unit and placed in a solitary cell where he collapsed and lay on the floor. Guards eventually noticed him unresponsive on the floor and took him back to the infirmary. It was too late. He had already died.

With the assistance of Pittsburgh Abolitionist Law Center attorneys Bret D. Grote, Quinn Cozzens, and Jamelia N. Morgan and Philadelphia attorney Jonathan H. Feinberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin, LLP, Briggs’ estate filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the DOC and DOC officials under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq.

The lawsuit, filed December 22, 2020 alleges defendants failed to accommodate people with respiratory disabilities in use-of-force training and policies, were deliberately indifferent to Briggs’ serious medical needs and used excessive force on Briggs. It invoked supervisor liability against SCI Mahanoy Superintendent Theresa DelBalso and Deputy Superintendent Charles Stetler.

A November 2019 DOC news release said 13 prison staff members, including guards and medical personnel, had been suspended pending an investigation into Briggs’ death. However, the DOC refused to reveal the outcome of that investigation or any consequences for the prison staff over a year later. See: Busbee v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Case No. 1:2020cv02401, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.). 


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Related legal case

Busbee v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections