Wisconsin Settles Suit Over Suicide Attempt at Juvie

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Wisconsin approved an $18.9 million settlement Tuesday for the teen who suffered severe brain damage after trying to kill herself in a juvenile prison cell.

Sydni Briggs was 16 years old when she tried to hang herself with a T-shirt from her cell door in November 2015 at the juvenile correctional facility Copper Lake School for Girls, according to the federal complaint filed last year in Madison.

She is now unable to walk and will require around-the-clock professional care for the rest of her life that will cost $200,000 or more a year.

Hours after the state Senate approved a measure to close the Copper Lake School for Girls and the Lincoln Hills School for Boys, a neighboring campus 30 miles to the north, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections announced a settlement with Briggs.

While attorneys’ fees and court costs account for about $7.5 million of the settlement fund, $11 million will go to a trust for Briggs.

The state will be responsible for about $4 million of the cost, and insurers will cover the rest.

Eric Haag, an attorney for Briggs with the firm Atterbury, Kammer & Haag, noted that the award is one of the largest civil rights settlements ever paid by the state.

“I am satisfied that this historic settlement will have a real and significant impact on the quality of Sydni’s life, for the rest of her life,” Haag said in a statement. I would not have settled the case without achieving that goal. This was a very preventable tragedy and her life has been needlessly changed forever. It has been a profound privilege to represent her.”

Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher meanwhile noted that the state made several changes as well to its juvenile prison in the last three years, such as increased guard training and hiring additional mental health professionals.

“These changes have dramatically changed the culture and environment at CLS/LHS for the better,” Litscher said in a statement Tuesday, abbreviating the names of the schools Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills. “We remain devoted to continuing to identify and make changes that further increase safety and security for staff and youth at CLS/LHS and across the department.”

Though the state Assembly unanimously voted to close the two schools last month, it will have to vote again because the Senate tweaked the measure Tuesday.

Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills are the only facilities of their kind in Wisconsin and are at the center of multiple lawsuits, some alleging excessive use of pepper spray and use of solitary confinement at levels the United Nations condemns as torture.

Briggs was sentenced to Copper Lake for theft, according to her complaint, which blamed poor staff training and compensation on the union-gutting legislation Act 10 signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Girls at Copper Lake School were attempting suicide at a rate of about two per week before Briggs tried to kill herself, the complaint also alleged.

In the five months leading up to this attempt, Briggs was allegedly not taking her prescribed medicine. Guards were supposed to be conducting visual checks on her cell every 15 minutes because she had used her fingernails to gouge cuts in her arm.

Before she tried to hang herself, the complaint states, Briggs had pressed the emergency call light in her cell to get help.

Subsequent investigations revealed that the staff had not checked on Briggs for 42 minutes before a guard cut her down from the makeshift noose.

The three staff members named in the suit — Andrew Yorde, Darrell Stetzer and Rosemary Esterholm — no longer work at the youth prison, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“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, who sued through her mother Jennifer, said staff deliberately ignored warning signs that could have helped save her.

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