In the last moments of Tyrone Briggs’ life — after ingesting a cloud of pepper spray — the 29-year-old Philadelphia man was heard telling staff at State Correctional Institution Mahanoy, ”I can’t breathe.”
Now, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by Briggs’ family, and to implement new protocols on the use of pepper spray. The agreement, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for Pennsylvania’s Western District and pending approval, is the largest settlement ever paid for a state prison death in Pennsylvania.
Briggs’ mother, Shaleda Busbee, said she hopes the reforms will shield others — particularly those who, like Briggs, suffer from asthma — from similar life-threatening situations.
“This is very significant that justice is served in a great way, not monetarily but through the system and changing their laws,” she said. “This cannot happen to another family.”
Thirteen staff were suspended in connection with Briggs’ November 2019 death. Department of Corrections press secretary Maria Bivens said subsequent personnel actions are “not public information,” but added that “involved security and medical staff members received discipline up to and including termination.”
Nationally, at least five men have died in prisons and jails in the last two years after being doused with pepper spray, a weapon that has become commonplace in correctional settings.
It was authorized for use in federal prisons in 2016 after an officer, Eric Williams, was killed by a prisoner at the federal prison in Waymart, Pa. A study found the spray enabled officers to contain incidents more quickly while reducing the officers’ risk of injury.
Pennsylvania lawmakers quickly passed their own version of that law, requiring all state corrections officers to be issued pepper spray.
Since then, usage has grown widespread: Chemical munitions have been used in about 120 incidents monthly, according to Department of Corrections data from 2018 and 2019 obtained by The Inquirer.
“It became routine, not just to break up fights but someone refusing to go into their cell, refusing to get off the phone … people with mental-health issues demanding medication,” said Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, the executive director of Abolitionist Law Center who was himself incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons for two decades. “It is now the go-to tool of guards now they have it in their possession.”
Purchase orders show the department’s collection of so-called less lethal chemical munitions include grenade-like pepper balls; projectiles filled with powdered chemical agents; high-volume fogging devices such as an exterminator might use; and crowd-control sprays designed to deliver streams of blisteringly strong pepper spray from up to 30 feet away.
Bivens said that 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. [Pepper spray] is typically less harmful than some other applications of physical force.”
Back in 2019, when Briggs was subjected to the spray, his mother had no idea of the peril.
They had always been close, said Busbee, who raised Briggs in West Philadelphia. “For nine years, it was just me and my son, no one else. Tyrone taught me how to love. He taught me how to be caring. He taught me how to be giving. He taught me how to be compassionate.”
At age 15, Briggs was arrested for raping a 13-year-old neighborhood girl at gunpoint and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in state prison.
His younger brother, who was 6 when Briggs was locked up, had not seen him for more than a decade because Briggs was not permitted visits by minors.
But by November 2019, they had reunited, and Briggs was nearing parole eligibility. For years, Busbee had brought her son’s photo to church, placing it in the chair next to her. He was looking forward to rejoining the congregation, she said, and aspiring to become a personal trainer.
“I was going to be his first client,” Busbee said. “I have letters with him telling me, ‘Mom, I’m not home yet, but follow this regimen so when I come home we can be on track.’”
Then, her phone began buzzing with calls from other prisoners: Something had happened to Briggs.
According to the lawsuit, he had been attacked by another man when an officer sought to break up the altercation using canisters of pepper spray — prolonged streams of it, rather than the one or two quick bursts that are protocol. One stream was aimed at Briggs’ face after he was already restrained and prone. That’s when others heard Briggs say he could not breathe. The complaint indicates he struggled on a slow walk to the infirmary. He waited a half hour for treatment but was only given an inhaler.
Though he was still unable to breathe, Briggs was then taken to a solitary confinement cell where he soon collapsed and died.
Abolitionist Law Center lawyer Bret Grote, who represents the family, said Department of Corrections policy already protects people with asthma from being pepper-sprayed during planned, coordinated use-of-force incidents, like cell extractions.
Going forward, he said, policies will go further in an effort to mitigate the dangers of unplanned uses of pepper spray: All staff will receive training on how pepper spray affects people with respiratory conditions. And anyone with such a condition who is subjected to it must have their oxygen levels measured and be reviewed by the chief medical official on duty.
“If any one of those provisions had been in place back in November of 2019, Tyrone Briggs would still be alive,” said Jonathan Feinberg, a civil rights lawyer and Grote’s cocounsel.
To Andrea Armstrong, a Loyola University New Orleans law professor and an expert on prison conditions, the settlement and reform measures are encouraging.
But, she said, it’s likely more needs to be done.
“A lot of this work happens much earlier than the incident,” she said. That’s because the types of conflicts that often trigger uses of force are the result of the culture of a facility, conditions of extreme scarcity, and lack of training in de-escalation. “Places that have reduced the use of force have enacted those types of de-escalation and culture change policies. [Interventions] in the moment are least likely to be successful.”