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Home / Commentary / View from around the state: Massive settlement underscores need for youth prison reform

View from around the state: Massive settlement underscores need for youth prison reform

— From the Journal Times of Racine

Anyone needing further proof of the need to reform Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system was given 18.9 million reasons last week.

A suicidal girl who called for guards’ help but was left hanging in her cell at the state’s youth prison long enough to suffer permanent, severe brain damage will receive $18.9 million as part of a settlement with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Wednesday.

The settlement with former inmate Sydni Briggs of Janesville was reached Tuesday, the same day lawmakers in the state Senate voted to close the long-troubled Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma in three years.

Briggs’ attorney said it will be used to pay for medical care for the rest of Briggs’ life. The settlement will be put in a trust that will go toward funding medical care for Briggs, who is no longer considered employable and expected to live for at least six decades.

“She is in a wheelchair, living in an adult family home, and she will require ongoing care for the rest of her life at a cost of millions of dollars,” Eric Haag, Briggs’ attorney, said.

State taxpayers will pay $4 million of the settled amount and the rest will come from insurers.

Briggs was 16 and an inmate in Copper Lake’s Ida B. Wells housing unit on Nov. 9, 2015, when she ripped up a pink T-shirt and secured it to a hinge on a door in her cell and attempted to hang herself, according to DOC incident reports.

She suffered from depression, anxiety and had harmed herself several times while at the youth prison. Her attempt to kill herself came 20 minutes after she activated a call light seeking help from staff, who had instructed her to call for help whenever she felt the urge to harm herself, according to Briggs’ attorneys. She was likely hanging between 2 and 5 minutes.

Though guards were supposed to check on inmates every 15 minutes, they did not check on Briggs for 42 minutes and did not respond to the call light Briggs activated before she attempted suicide for 23 minutes, according to a review conducted after Briggs and her guardian filed a lawsuit in 2017.

Briggs’ attorneys found evidence that showed guards falsified initials on a log that required staff to record when they had completed mandatory 15-minute hall checks. Moreover, video footage showed multiple guards “failing to respond to the call light despite ample opportunity to do so,” according to Briggs’ attorneys.

“The (guards) alleged that they were unaware that the light was on despite the fact that the light was easily seen from numerous locations where staff were present,” her attorneys said. “Finally, after nearly 24 minutes, one of the (guards) responded and found Miss Briggs hanging from her door hinge, with no respirations and no pulse. She had torn apart her T-shirt and used it as a ligature. Her room had a camera in it which was visible at all times to counselors in the staff booth.”

Briggs’ suicide attempt came one month before state and federal investigators descended on the prison to review allegations of inmate abuse, destruction of public records, sexual assault and child neglect, among other crimes.

Since the raid on the youth prison, nearly all the DOC staff charged with overseeing juvenile corrections in Wisconsin have resigned or been fired. A federal investigation into the myriad allegations continues, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said last week.

The state also gave $300,000 to another former inmate in 2016 to settle a lawsuit he filed after his toes were severely injured after a prison guard slammed a door on his foot. And several other federal lawsuits alleging abuse from staff at the prison are ongoing, including a class-action suit that prompted a federal judge to order changes in DOC’s use of solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spray on teen inmates.

The youth prison overhaul bill passed the Senate unanimously on Tuesday, 32-0. That bill would shutter and replace Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake, both in Irma, with new, smaller facilities for juvenile offenders around the state, consistent with a proposal Gov. Scott Walker made in January.

Moving to a more regional juvenile system isn’t a cure-all. Hard work by dedicated people will be required to make the system into one that actually reforms juvenile offenders, one that puts them back on the path to becoming productive citizens.

But Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system is quite obviously broken. It must be fixed to ensure that no more juvenile inmates end up like Sydni Briggs.

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