By Evelyne Kane
Online exclusive for Prison Health News
A few days before Christmas, Shaleda and Ervin Busbee sit together in their cozy and well-kept rowhouse in West Philadelphia. From the living room, a lighted Christmas tree ringed with gifts glows softly. Despite the festivity of the season, the Busbees’ spirits are heavy this year as they grieve the loss of their son, Tyrone Briggs, who was killed on November 11, 2019 while incarcerated at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution-Mahanoy. His family and legal team allege that his death was caused by excessive use of pepper spray by Mahanoy staff.
After nearly fifteen years of incarceration, the Busbees were joyously anticipating Tyrone’s release early in 2020. They had prepared his bedroom for his return, and laugh together recalling how Tyrone said he would rather sleep in their bed—like he did as a child with his mother. And they say they would have let him, happily. The Busbees are understandably struggling to accept their son’s death. Mrs. Busbee, apologizing for her tears, says, “I have his picture sitting on his nightstand in his bedroom, and every morning I walk in and say ‘Good morning, handsome.’ … Even though we have his obituary, I still find myself sitting here and thinking he’s going to call me. Maybe that sounds crazy, but I just can’t believe that he’s gone.”
Like many families with an incarcerated loved one, grief is not new to the Busbees. When Tyrone was first incarcerated at the age of fifteen, the hopes and dreams they had for their son were put on hold. Like all parents, they had imagined what Tyrone’s life would become: that he would grow up to be a valued member of his community and church family, that he would mentor and protect his younger brother, and that one day he would start a family of his own. As Tyrone’s release date neared, this bright future seemed possible once again—a new start, a second chance. “Everyone was looking forward to him coming home,” says Mr. Busbee. “He wanted to play the keyboard in church. He acquired an HVAC certificate and finished high school while he was [incarcerated]. He was looking forward to being a father and a husband and coming home and getting a job.” Now these hopes for a future have been lost altogether. When the Busbees talk about Tyrone’s untimely death, they call it “the second time that he was taken from us.”
Tyrone’s story is not just his own, but the story of countless young people and their families who are victims of mass incarceration. The Busbees raise concerns about the entire duration of Tyrone’s involvement with the criminal justice system: from disputing the fairness of his initial sentencing, to questioning why his case was never reviewed when additional information became available, to ongoing complaints about abuse at the hands of correctional officers (COs). Their lived experiences are echoes of problems well documented at a national level. A 2017 report from the United States Sentencing Commision found that African American males receive sentences that are nearly 20% longer than their white counterparts. In 2017, African American youth made up 35% of delinquency cases, but over half (54%) of youth judicially transferred from juvenile court to adult court. In one Pennsylvania county, 85% of youth tried as adults are African American.
The Busbees recall numerous examples of cruelty and misconduct from correctional facility staff that Tyrone witnessed or experienced firsthand. Mr. Busbee explains, “COs use their power. If they’re having a bad day, or they don’t like you, then you don’t eat, or you don’t get to call your family, or you get spit on, or you get pepper sprayed to death.” Just as reports of police brutality, and particularly those aimed at people of color, have become sadly commonplace, there is in parallel a growing awareness of an epidemic of excessive force used by correctional facility staff. At the end of 2018, twenty-five COs in Maryland were placed on leave for assaulting and threatening detainees at correctional facilities, tampering with evidence, and falsifying documents. New York’s Rikers Island has come under fire for an “alarming rate” of brutal force used by COs, and elsewhere in New York, an investigation was opened after COs beat an incarcerated African-American man named Kevin Moore so savagely that he suffered five broken ribs, skull fractures, and a collapsed lung.
Not only are the Busbees devastated by the actions of the COs that allegedly led to Tyrone’s death, they are also hurt and angered by the subsequent callousness displayed by staff at Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC). According to the Busbees, they were not notified about Tyrone’s death until the day after he passed away. When a representative from the DOC finally contacted them, they were told that the DOC simply could not locate their phone number the day before. “They went home that day [he died] like nothing happened,” says Mrs. Busbee. “How do you know that someone’s family member died and you just go home and enjoy your family without even telling them what happened?” When the Busbees visited Mahanoy to pick up Tyrone’s belongings, they recall how the warden who greeted them offered little condolence. “She said to us: ‘We don’t know what happened. He seemed healthy and fit, but as we were taking him to detainment, he just laid down on the floor and expired.’” Mrs. Busbee recoils as she says the word “expired.” “Milk expires,” she says. “People don’t ‘expire.’ Don’t tell me my son expired. Tell me what happened. Tell me what you did to him.”
Now, more than a month since Tyrone’s passing, the Busbees say the DOC has made no additional contact, has not offered to support the family with the cost of final expenses, has not even extended a sincere apology for their loss. “If it wasn’t for the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) starting a GoFundMe campaign for us,” says Mrs. Busbee, “my son might still be in the morgue at the DOC.” With the help of the ALC, the family is determined to seek justice for Tyrone, which for them begins with holding the indicated COs accountable for this death. “I’m not satisfied with the fact that they suspended thirteen employees, because they still get to go home and kiss their kids. That’s so far from enough,” says Mrs. Busbee. Despite their deep sadness, the Busbees are hopeful that some good can come from their loss. Not only are they fighting for accountability, they also want Tyrone’s case to be an impetus for changes, like improvements to hiring and training practices for COs, reformed youth sentencing policies, and even a “Tyrone Briggs Act” that would require safety protocols for incarcerated people with medical conditions like asthma, mental illness, or a heart condition, who are particularly vulnerable in correctional facilities.
Although the DOC has yet to demonstrate compassion or transparency in the handling of this case, it is not too late for them to begin to do the right thing—not only for the Busbees, but also for the tens of thousands of incarcerated people and their families across the state. To do this will require humility and integrity as the DOC assesses the problems that led up to Tyrone’s death and commits to making necessary changes to avoid more tragedies in the future. While working towards larger goals of decarceration, it is crucial that criminal justice systems embrace practices of restorative justice. In the wake of this tragedy, we are reminded that communities are made less safe and less healthy when incarcerated people experience systemic trauma at the hands of law enforcement and correctional facility staff. Too often, people return from incarceration with mental, physical, and spiritual scars from their experience, and in some cases—like Tyrone’s—they do not return at all.
As they fight for justice for Tyrone, the Busbees are doing their best to make it through these dark days. “We haven’t slept much since it happened,” says Mr. Busbee. “It hurts to go to work some days. I have to sit in the truck awhile before I go in, because I’m thinking about [Tyrone] and all the things I’ll never get to do with him.” There are also happy memories that the family holds dear: the rap song Tyrone wrote for his mom, sharing meals together, and his smile. The Busbees hope that when people talk about their son, they remember his humanity and do not allow his personhood to be overshadowed by conceptions and portrayals of his criminality.
As Mrs. Busbee wipes her tears, she looks over at one of the posterboard collages she made from pictures of Tyrone. “He was a loving and caring young man,” she says. “He was charismatic and had a good sense of humor. He was a person, not a monster. [When he was convicted] he was a kid, and he was a good boy, like every other boy out here trying to find his way. He was a boy with the wrong friends, somewhere at the wrong time, and now he’s gone forever.”