Following a series of lawsuits and allegations of severe misconduct at the Copper Lake School for Girls juvenile detention center, the state of Wisconsin agreed to pay former inmate Sydni Briggs nearly $20 million.
The massive payout stems from a suicide attempt that nearly took Briggs’ life and left her permanently disabled.
In 2015, Briggs broke into a liquor store. Stealing several bottles of gin and vodka, the girl was quickly apprehended. Less than a year later, she was sentenced to a stint at Wisconsin’s Copper Lake School for Girls.
Situated alongside the Lincoln Hill School for Boys, the two facilities have garnered extensive criticism. Young inmates claimed routine abuse, from beatings to extensive stays in solitary confinement.
A measure, supported and approved by Governor Scott Walker, is expected to shutter both centers for good.
Briggs was 16 years old at the time of her adjudication. Ordered to stay at Copper Lake, she quickly suffered a psychological breakdown. On November 9th, 2015, Briggs flicked an emergency switch in her cell. Staff were supposed to respond immediately.
According to the Journal-Sentinel Online, guards could see into Briggs unit. Despite the signal and no movement coming from within, corrections officers took some 24 minutes to investigate. By then, the teenager had hung herself with a torn t-shirt. Staff discovered her without a pulse, unconscious and unbreathing.
She was revived through a combination of CPR and defibrillation.
But by then, Briggs had been irreparably damaged. Her attorney, Eric Haag, said an expert witness testified that she’d been hanging between two and five minutes – meaning that guards could have stopped her suicide attempt if they’d followed protocol and immediately attended to her call.
“The tragedy is that this was preventable and it didn’t require any heroics or anything extraordinary to prevent it from occurring,” said Haag in a statement. “If people had competently done their jobs and fulfilled basic responsibilities, this would not have happened.”
Even after being revived, Briggs continued to struggle. She spent four months in a coma. The state moved her from Copper Lake to a rehabilitation center.
Now 19, writes the Journal Sentinel, Briggs is wheelchair bound and has the cognitive capacity of a young child. Medical expenses cost her family close to $200,000 per year.
Haag said he’s met Briggs 10 times in the past two years but has had to reintroduce himself each time.
Briggs’ own notes show she was fighting debilitating anxiety and urges to self-harm from her first days at Copper Lake. In October of 2015, she bit the inside of her mouth so badly that she spat blood up in front of a nurse.
“My anxiety is worse lately,” Briggs told a nurse, her words logged. “Everything is making me upset.”
She told staff she’d been contemplating suicide – that she was depressed and struggling to adjust to Copper Lake.
Instead of offering any sort of counseling, Briggs was branded “disruptive” and “unsanitary,” sent to isolation as punishment. Less than two weeks later, after being remanded to the facility’s mental health wing, she tried to hang herself in an unsupervised cell.
“Instead of getting her help and taking on additional precautions, they disciplined her, which is an antiquated way of dealing with self-harm,” said Haag.
An $18 million verdict is likely little solace to the family of Briggs, who’ll never regain the chance to walk or grow into an ordinary adult.
Haag says he’s pleased Wisconsin is closing Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills, but doesn’t think the system will change without a total overhaul.
“This outcome isn’t going to change dramatically by a change in geography alone,” he said.
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