By Evelyne Kane
Online exclusive for Prison Health News
On November 11, 2019, Tyrone Briggs died at the age of 29 while incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Mahanoy, a 1,000-cell, all-male, medium-security correctional facility located in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Shortly after, 13 of Mahanoy’s medical and security staff were suspended, pending the outcome of an investigation into Briggs’ death. In a press release, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel promised that “whatever the outcome of this case, we are going to be as transparent as possible, and the DOC will take whatever remedial measures deemed to be necessary.” Despite this promise, additional details about the cause of Briggs’ death have been slow to follow. Reports from other individuals incarcerated at Mahanoy, including a prisonradio.org podcast from Mumia Abu-Jamal, have attributed Briggs’ death to the excessive use of oleoresin capsicum (OC), or “pepper spray.” In accounts from witnesses inside Mahanoy, it is believed that guards responded to an altercation between Briggs and another inmate by spraying the two men with OC. They subsequently tackled Briggs to the ground, held him down, and continued to OC-spray him. Briggs was heard to say, “I can’t breathe,” several times during the incident, and it is believed that these were his last words.
The Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) is representing and supporting Briggs’ family as they seek justice for their lost son. When asked if the DOC is living up to their promise of transparency, ALC’s Director of Community Organizing, Robert Saleem Holbrook, commented, “Transparency is not part of our historical experience of dealing with DOC. … In this case, they have yet to release any details, including the use of OC spray. We are doing everything possible to hold DOC accountable, to make sure they are transparent, and to pursue justice for Tyrone’s family.”
Briggs was incarcerated at just 15 years old. He had served 14 years of his 15-to-30-year sentence, and his family expected him to be released at the end of 2019, which would have been just weeks after his untimely death. Although DOC has been slow to release details of what caused Briggs’ death, they were quick to release information about the nature of the crime that led to his incarceration. His family and legal team are concerned that this may be a strategic attempt to obscure the DOC’s wrongdoing, to minimize the tragedy of this case, and, in their words, “to kill Tyrone twice.” As ALC’s Holbrook points out: “Whatever his offense, he didn’t deserve to die, and his family didn’t deserve to be treated this way. … Imagine if this was your son, brother, or uncle—and realize that this could be anyone. When the guards OC-sprayed [Briggs] to death, they didn’t know his offense, and they didn’t care—they looked at him as a disposable human being.”
This is not the first time someone has died in DOC custody with reported links to excessive use of OC spray. In 2012, 32-year-old John Carter died after a cell extraction, when guards reportedly used three cans of OC spray and electroshock weapons.
In a public statement shortly after his son’s death, Briggs’ father, Ervin Busbee, said: “The lives of the inmates in there matter, they are someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, brother or uncle. They are human. Why are you painting my son as an animal? Tyrone’s life mattered. His Mother will never get to see him again. The last time she saw him was behind glass on a visit, and the next time she’ll see him will be in a box. We took pictures of Tyrone to church every week so our congregation would get to know him and they were awaiting his presence at service when he came home. Now our church will be burying him. Why hasn’t the prison offered its condolences? We want justice.”
For those concerned about this case and the pattern of extrajudicial killings by law enforcement, please: Follow and support the work of the Abolitionist Law Center, get involved with movements to support decarceration and promote the rights of people in prison, and consider contributing to the GoFundMe campaign to support Briggs’ family with costs associated with his death.