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$8.5 Million Paid by Pennsylvania DOC for Death of Asthmatic Prisoner Improperly Pepper-Sprayed

by Matt Clarke

On October 18, 2021, a federal court in Pennsylvania approved an $8.5 million settlement reached the prior month between the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and the family of an asthmatic state prisoner who died after being pepper-sprayed with oleoresin capsicum (OC) by guards at State Correctional Institution – Mahanoy on November 11, 2019. The settlement also modifies DOC “policy, procedure and training programs to address the heightened risk OC may pose to inmates with asthma and other respiratory diseases.”

As previously reported by PLN, the 29-year-old prisoner, Tyrone Briggs, got into an altercation with another prisoner on the recreation yard when guards unloaded two canisters of OC on Briggs and tackled him, after which they “gratuitously unloaded yet another can of [pepper] spray directly at Brigg’s face while he was restrained on the ground.” Though he immediately complained, “I can’t breathe,” he was not seen by medical staff for a half-hour and even then, was given only an inhaler. He was placed in solitary confinement, where he died later that day. [See: PLN, May 2021, p.54.]

Thirteen DOC staff were suspended in connection with Briggs’ death, but DOC has never shared details of any disciplinary action taken against them. Aided by Pittsburgh Abolitionist Law Center attorneys Bret D. Grote, Quinn Cozzens and Jamelia N. Morgan, as well as Philadelphia attorney Jonathan H. Feinberg of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin, LLP, Briggs’ mother, Shaleda Busbee, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on December 22, 2020, accusing DOC and its guards of excessive force and denial of medical care as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101 et seq. (ADA).

An important goal of the lawsuit was to achieve change in DOC pepper-spray protocols. Grote said previous DOC policy protected prisoners with asthma from being pepper-sprayed only during planned actions such as cell extractions. So the policy changes will mitigate the dangers of unplanned uses of pepper-spray, providing “mandatory procedures for nursing assessments of inmates with respiratory disabilities who come into contact with OC.”

All staff will also receive training on how pepper-spray endangers people with respiratory conditions. When OC is used on a prisoner, staff must examine his medical chart for “notations of respiratory disease,” and if there are any such notes, his oxygen levels must be measured by the “on-call medical provider,” who is alone empowered to clear the prisoner or hold him for further observation.

With the settlement, Busbee also agreed to bear her own expenses of the litigation, including attorney’s fees. See: Busbee v. Pa. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (M.D. Pa.), Case No. 1:20-cv-02401.

According to DOC’s own data from 2018 and 2019, there were about 120 uses each month of chemical munitions, including personal pepper-spray canisters, grenade-like pepper balls, projectiles filled with chemical agents, high-volume chemical agent fogging machines and high-pressure, high-volume crowd control dispensers that use an especially powerful pepper-spray.

Part of the problem is that the regular use of so-called “less lethal” weapons, such as pepper-spray, has become part of law enforcement culture, with studies showing that the availability of such weaponry makes it less likely a confrontation will be de-escalated and more likely that guards will simply deploy the weapon.

“It became routine, not just to break up fights but [for] someone refusing to go into their cell, refusing to get off the phone … people with mental health issues demanding medication,” according to Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, who spent two decades in DOC prisons. “It is now the go-to tool of guards.”

The federal Bureau of Prisons first authorized the use of pepper spray in its prisons after BOP guard Eric Williams was killed by a prisoner at a Pennsylvania federal prison in 2013. Pennsylvania lawmakers soon authorized state prison guards to carry pepper spray canisters in 2016. At least five prisoners died from pepper spray effects in the nation’s jails and prisons in 2018 and 2019.   

Additional source: Philadelphia Inquirer

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