The family of a West Philadelphia man who died in a Pennsylvania state prison last year filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday, saying he was killed by corrections officers who used “an extraordinary and unjustifiable amount” of pepper spray on him, triggering an asthma attack, and then denied him proper medical care.
Tyrone Briggs, 29, died Nov. 11, 2019, at the State Correctional Institution Mahanoy in Schuylkill County.
The lawsuit, filed by his mother, Shaleda Busbee, contends that prison staff knew Briggs suffered from asthma and although correctional officers were trained to use only one or two quick bursts of pepper spray, three officers sprayed him for a prolonged period after another inmate attacked him in the recreation yard and he tried to defend himself.
Briggs was overheard saying, “I can’t breathe,” the suit contends. Medical staff didn’t see him until about 30 to 45 minutes after he was first doused with pepper spray, and didn’t provide the necessary treatment, the suit says.
After the infirmary, he was placed in solitary confinement, where he collapsed, stopped breathing, and died, the suit says.
Briggs was serving a 15- to 30-year sentence for raping an 11-year-old girl in a West Philadelphia alley in 2006 when he was 15.
Besides the Department of Corrections, the complaint names as defendants then-SCI Mahanoy Superintendent Theresa DelBalso, Deputy Superintendent Charles Stetler, and the correctional officers and medical personnel involved, whose names are not known by Briggs’ family or lawyers.
The corrections department said last year that it suspended 13 employees after Briggs’ death, which it said occurred about 90 minutes after an altercation with another inmate. Susan McNaughton, a state prison spokesperson, declined to comment Tuesday, saying the department doesn’t comment on litigation. Efforts to reach DelBalso and Stetler were unsuccessful.
Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center, one of the family’s lawyers, said Tuesday during a Zoom interview with Briggs’ parents that the Schuylkill County Coroner’s Office listed the cause of Briggs’ death as “complications from asthma.”
But Grote called Briggs’ death an extrajudicial killing by law enforcement inside prison walls. He said he’s heard from inmates across the state that there has been a noticeable increase in the use of pepper spray after all state corrections officers were mandated to carry pepper spray.
Briggs’ mother, getting emotional, said: “My son’s loss is a great deal to my whole family. We’ll never get a chance to experience him as an adult.”
His father, Montrell Busbee, said the people who were supposed to protect him instead killed him and “treated him like he wasn’t worthy of living.”