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Prison officials reach $18.9M settlement with Copper Lake inmate who attempted suicide

MADISON— The state Department of Corrections reached an $18.9 million settlement Tuesday with a former youth prison inmate who suffered brain damage after she tried to hang herself in her cell.

Sydni Briggs' attorney, Eric Haag, said in a statement that the deal is the largest civil rights settlement the state has ever paid. Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook didn't immediately reply to an email seeking confirmation.

"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. "This was a very preventable tragedy and her life has been needlessly changed forever."

Briggs was 16 in July 2015 when she was sentenced to the state's youth prison outside Irma. She tried to hang herself with strips of her T-shirt in her cell that November.

Guards saved her but she suffered a brain injury and will require round-the-clock care the rest of her life. She filed a federal lawsuit last year alleging staff ignored signs that she was contemplating suicide and failed to protect her.

Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher said in a news release announcing the settlement that outside attorneys conducted a review of the department's actions. They found that responding guards may not have followed existing policies and a proper investigation wasn't conducted at the time the incident occurred. He said internal investigations have resulted in "employee separations."

He didn't elaborate in the release and Cook didn't immediately reply to a follow-up email seeking more information.

Haag said in his statement that Briggs suffered from depression and anxiety. Prison psychologists told her to alert staff immediately if she felt like hurting herself and knew Briggs had to be watched closely, Haag said.

On the day she tried to hang herself she activated her cell call light, Haag said. Prison policy required guards to respond as soon as possible but video showed no one responded for 24 minutes, when they found her hanging. Haag went on to say that guards falsified a log to show they had checked her cell every 15 minutes.

Documents that Litscher included with his news release show a federal auditor noted during a facility tour in June 2015 that staff weren't immediately responding to lit call lights.

The FBI launched a sweeping investigation into allegations of prisoner abuse, sexual assault, intimation of witnesses and victims and record-tampering at the prison in 2015. That probe continues. No one has been charged thus far.

A federal judge last year ordered guards to limit the use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and shackles in response to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. Prison workers have said that order has emboldened inmates to act out. One guard vs. inmates clash in October sent five workers to the hospital. Two weeks earlier a juvenile knocked out a teacher.

The state Senate unanimously approved a bill Tuesday hours before the settlement was announced that would close the youth prison by 2021 and replace it with smaller regional facilities. The most serious juvenile offenders would be placed under state control. Other juveniles would be housed in county-run facilities.

The Assembly was expected to pass the bill Thursday and send the measure on to Gov. Scott Walker's desk.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher provided the following statement regarding a settlement that was reached with former youth Sydni Briggs, who was housed at Copper Lake School:

“I took over as Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections in early March 2016 with a clear mandate from Governor Walker to make aggressive and widespread changes; it was clear that the Governor wanted us to act decisively, make needed reforms, and hold ourselves accountable.

Outside counsel retained in connection with this case conducted a review of the Department’s actions.

During this review, information was brought to the attention of current leaders regarding the November 2015 incident which prompted us to question whether the Department’s initial response was in line with existing policies. It became clear a proper investigation was not conducted at the time this tragic incident occurred.

Further, this review raised questions as to whether employees responding to the incident followed policies, which resulted in our opening internal investigations for possible work rule violations as part of our efforts to maintain accountability. To date, these investigations have resulted in employee separations.

We have made dozens of changes to enhance CLS/LHS operations, including the hiring of a Juvenile Mental Health Director and new CLS/LHS chief psychologist; revamping the provision of mental health services and adding more licensed mental health professionals; requiring a seven-week pre-service academy for all DJC security staff; requiring staff to wear body cameras and record interactions with youth; and conducting a centralized review of all youth injuries, regardless of cause, with Department, Division, and CLS/LHS leadership.

These changes have dramatically changed the culture and environment at CLS/LHS for the better. 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.”