A video (below) has recently surfaced of an African-American man, Michael Sabbie, telling prison guards repeatedly that he could not breathe inside the Bi State Jail on the Texas and Arkansas border. After about 48 hours in custody, the 35-year-old father of four died on July 22, 2015.
The Huffington Post notes that Sabbie said, "I can’t breathe" after five officers got on top of him, said it again after being pepper-sprayed by a sixth officer, said it again after jail guards pushed him against a wall outside the jail's nurse station and said it again after being forced into a shower by an officer.
After Sabbie subsequently collapsed, the jail guards took him to a prison cell where he told them again that he could not breathe. The guards left Sabbie in the cell overnight, and he died.
KYGL, a news station in Texarkana, Arkansas, published an article in July 2015 with information drawn from a Texarkana Police press release that said Sabbie "was found in his cell unresponsive. He was in a cell by himself. The jail medical staff provided immediate CPR and LifeNet Paramedics were called to the jail."
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In August 2015, KSLA reported that questions were being raised by Sabbie's family members, who said they were not getting answers from law enforcement. Texarkana Police Chief Bob Harrison then called in the FBI to take over the investigation.
KSLA noted an important fact at end of its story: "The Bi-State Justice Center is operated by the private company Lasalle Corrections out of Ruston, Louisiana," which unknowingly revealed that the Texarkana Police did not run the jail, yet had released statements about Sabbie's death in the jail.
Lasalle, a for-profit prison company, receives $39.50 per day per inmate from state governments to house prisoners, notes The Huffington Post.
The news site added that a medical examiner would later rule that Sabbie, who had heart muscle damage and was obese, died a "natural" death.
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David C. Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told The Huffington Post that preventable prison deaths ruled as "natural" are both a "common phenomenon" and "huge problem" in U.S. jails.
"We often find that someone’s death is characterized as 'natural causes' -- maybe it was cancer, maybe it was heart disease," Fathi explained. "But if you look at the medical record, you often find egregious neglect and denial of care. If someone dies of cancer that went totally untreated, is that death from natural causes?"
In other words, anyone who dies from a lack of medical care could possibly be labeled as having died a "natural" death. The legal implication is important because if an inmate's death is simply "natural," then, in theory, no one can be held responsible.
Erik J. Heipt, a lawyer for Sabbie's family, stated:
If you just looked at the cause of death, you would think that Michael died of some sort of hypertensive heart condition, and that may be true. But if we didn’t have a video, we’d never know that he had been begging for help due to his shortness of breath and inability to breathe. We’d never know that he said "I can’t breathe" 19 times in the nine minutes that we hear in that video.
Heipt believes that Sabbie suffered from a pulmonary edema, which is when someone has excess fluid in their lungs (which would explain Sabbie not being able to breathe) that is caused by a heart condition.
According to Heipt, this is an emergency situation that can been treated with the right medical intervention.
The State Crime Laboratory’s Medical Examiner Division said that Sabbie died from "hypertensive arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease," which is a build-up of plaque in the arteries of someone who has high blood pressure.
The division also said that Sabbie's altercations with the jail guards "played a minimal role in the decedent’s death, and may not have contributed at all to his death."
According to police, Sabbie was originally arrested on July 19, 2015, after arguing with his wife about money. She reportedly told the cops that Sabbie had made a verbal threat before he got out of a car and walked off.
A police officer found Sabbie, who denied making the verbal threat. Sabbie was arrested and charged with a third-degree assault on a household or family member, a misdemeanor. Sabbie was subsequently taken to the privately-run jail.
Sabbie was treated by a jail nurse in the early morning hours of July 20 for a low level of oxygen in his blood, and was told in to sit up if he had trouble breathing.
He was taken to the jail nurse again on July 21, and told her that he thought he had pneumonia, but the nurse sent him back to his cell.
Sabbie was taken to court that afternoon where a court bailiff described Sabbie as "sweating very heavily and coughing," and the judge suggested that could he could have asthma or bronchitis. Sabbie told the judge how he had been spitting blood, and needed to be seen at a hospital.
Sabbie was not taken to a hospital, but was escorted with other inmates back to jail, which is when the video starts. Sabbie is seen leaning against a wall, and then bending down with his hands on his knees when he is approached by a guard.
Sabbie appears to turn away, and the guard grabs him and slings him around until he goes flying onto the floor and the other guards join in. The rest of the video shows the drama previously described above.
Robert Page, the jail warden, did not respond to The Huffington Post for comment; neither did LaSalle Corrections.
The Sabbie family said they "cannot conceive of how something like this could happen to an American citizen."
Paige Fitzgerald, of the U.S. Department of Justice, said in a letter to Sabbie's wife on Aug. 1, 2016:
"After careful consideration, we concluded that the evidence does not establish a prosecutable violation of the federal criminal civil rights statutes."
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Sources: The Huffington Post, KYGL, KSLA / Photo credit: LaSalle Corrections/The Huffington Post via YouTube