New York Times: For-Profit Jail is Accused of Ignoring Man’s Pleas for Medical Help Before Death

The New York Times is reporting on an in-custody death lawsuit being handled by Budge & Heipt. The case relates to the death of Michael Sabbie who died in the Bi-State Jail on the border of Texas and Arkansas:

When Michael Sabbie was booked into jail by the Arkansas police on a misdemeanor assault charge in July 2015, he warned nurses there about his ailments — heart disease, high blood pressure and asthma — and told them he needed medication.

Less than three days later, Mr. Sabbie was dead on the floor of his cell. Videos captured his rapidly deteriorating health in the hours before his death as he pleaded with corrections officers for help. At least 19 times he could be heard saying, “I can’t breathe” — at one point as he crawled, gasping for air, while guards watched him through his cell door.

A federal lawsuit filed by his family on Wednesday accuses at least 12 corrections officers and nurses at a for-profit jail on the Texas-Arkansas border of causing his death. The lawsuit claims that the employees at the jail, the Bi-State Justice Center in Bowie County, Tex., showed a “deliberate indifference” to his health and ignored obvious signs of his declining condition.

Mr. Sabbie was deprived of his medication and was written up for “creating a disturbance” by saying he was ill, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.


Michael Sabbie was found dead on July 21, 2015, at the Bi-State Justice Center in Bowie County, Tex. Credit via Budge & Heipt, PLLC

“You have clearly untrained detention staff who are misusing their power and ignoring someone’s pleas for help and his repeated statement that he can’t breathe,” Erik Heipt, a lawyer for the family, said in an interview on Wednesday.

In addition to the jail staff members, the lawsuit also names the jail’s operator, LaSalle Corrections, which runs jails in Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Billy McConnell, an owner of LaSalle Corrections, said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Mr. Sabbie, 35, was arrested on July 19 in Texarkana, Ark., on suspicion of verbal assault, a Class C misdemeanor, against his wife. He was taken to the Bi-State Justice Center, which is used by police departments on both sides of the border.

Mr. Sabbie’s medical issues were apparent almost immediately. At 3:30 a.m. on July 20, a nurse examined him for shortness of breath and an inability to breathe while lying down.

On July 21, he was taken to the nurse’s station again after he had collapsed in his cell, and collapsed again while returning to his cell. The second collapse led to his being issued an infraction for allegedly faking “illness and difficulty breathing,” according to the lawsuit.

At a court hearing on July 21, several people in the room, including the judge, noticed Mr. Sabbie was sweating, breathing heavily and coughing, according to the suit. The judge asked if he was sick, and Mr. Sabbie replied that he had been spitting up blood and needed to go the hospital.

But Mr. Sabbie was taken back to the Bi-State Justice Center instead. During his return to his cell, a security camera in a hallway recorded him leaning against a wall to catch his breath. When he appeared to turn back down the hall, guards tackled him to the ground.

A jail employee with a hand-held camera recorded the ensuing struggle between Mr. Sabbie and five guards who were trying to pull his hands behind his back. “I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe,” he said before another guard used pepper spray on him.

The video shows Mr. Sabbie breathing heavily over the next nine minutes as corrections officers drag him to the nurse’s station and then into a shower. After he collapses in the shower, guards pick him up and pull him into his cell as his orange pants fall below his waist. Mr. Sabbie can be seen rolling on the floor and wiping his face with his shirt before the recording stops.

He was found dead the next morning, sprawled on the floor of his cell.

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