Ex-Juvie Inmate Blames Jail Staff for Brain Injury

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – A disabled teen who tried to kill herself in her juvenile jail cell exhibited myriad warning signs that staff ignored, she claims in the second federal lawsuit against Wisconsin’s juvenile prison system in as many weeks.

Sydni Briggs suffered permanent brain damage when she tried to hang herself with a T-shirt from her cell door, according to the complaint she filed Monday in Madison Wis., federal court, and is now unable to walk and requires around-the-clock professional care.

Briggs, who sued through her mother Jennifer, points to her history of self-harm and self-reported suicidal ideation to prove claims that staff at the Copper Lake School deliberately ignored warning signs that could have saved her.

Briggs was sentenced to Copper Lake in July 2015, when she was 16 years old.

By this point, only two juvenile correctional facilities remained open in Wisconsin, and they were chronically understaffed. The staff that was in place was undertrained, according to the complaint, and underpaid thanks to Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s gutting of public employee unions, known as Act 10.

Before Briggs attempted suicide, girls at Copper Lake School were doing so at a rate of about one per week, according to the lawsuit.

“One term used for these attempts was ‘tying off,’ and staff characterized the behavior as merely attention seeking,” the complaint states. “Girls who ‘tied off’ were not sent for follow-up examinations, contrary to policy.”

Briggs reported past self-harm, with one recent incident, upon her arrival at Copper Lake. A doctor also noted she was not taking psychotropic drugs she had been prescribed, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was addicted to alcohol and used drugs.

After using her fingernails to gouge cuts in her arm on multiple occasions, staff placed Briggs on regular 15-minute visual checks in her cell.

But despite continuing suicidal thoughts and working through post-traumatic stress disorder with her psychiatrist, staff took Briggs off regular visual checks and placed her in a cell without a roommate or a camera, according to the complaint.

“In late October and early November [2015], Briggs was showing other clear signs of emotional distress,” the complaint states. “For example, she had abruptly cut her hair very short. She reported frequent vomiting. She had intentionally chewed on the inside of her mouth until it bled.”

When staff did not respond to her calls for help using her call light on Nov. 9, 2015, Briggs hanged herself over the hinge of her cell door with a T-shirt, according to her lawsuit.

When staff discovered her, she was gray and not breathing. A nurse had to instruct staff to call 911 after they had started CPR, Briggs says.

“Briggs suffered a severe anoxic brain injury” as a result of her suicide attempt, the complaint states. “She cannot walk. Her speech is comparable to a very young child. She remains severely disabled, and will remain that way for the rest of her life.”

Briggs alleges deliberate indifference to a serious medical need against jail staff, and negligence against the Medical College of Wisconsin, which supplied the psychiatrist who allegedly failed to recommend closer observation.

Last week, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center, four Wisconsin juvenile offenders sued state officials, alleging excessive use of pepper spray and use of solitary confinement at levels the United Nations condemns as torture.

Eric Haag of Middleton, Wis.-based Atterbury, Kammer & Haag SC is representing Briggs. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Tuesday morning.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice declined to comment on the lawsuit.