A federal magistrate judge issued a report this week that lays out disturbing evidence of neglect and abuse in the 2015 death of Michael Sabbie, an inmate at a privately run jail who begged for help and repeatedly told guards “I can’t breathe” as they assaulted him and placed him in the cell where he died.
The remarkable 169-page order issued by U.S. Magistrate Judge Caroline Craven on Wednesday lays out the extensive evidence of neglect and mismanagement of the Bi-State Jail, which is run by the for-profit company LaSalle Corrections.
Sabbie, a 35-year-old father of four, was arrested after a verbal dispute with his wife in July 2015 and locked up in the Bi-State Jail, a privately run facility that straddles the border of Texas and Arkansas. Sabbie, who had diabetes, asthma and hypertension, was having medical problems at the facility, but guards cited him for “creating a disturbance” by “feining [sic] illness and difficulty breathing.” Sabbie was struggling to breathe on his way back from court when a guard threw him to the ground. Other guards ― paid at a starting rate of around $10 per hour ― soon piled on top of Sabbie and pepper-sprayed him in the face. After a seconds-long stop at the nurse’s office, guards placed Sabbie in a shower and then his cell. He was found dead the next morning.
Sabbie’s death was highlighted as part of HuffPost’s jail deaths project, an investigative effort to chronicle deaths of jail inmates across the U.S. in the year after Sandra Bland died in a Texas jail cell. Sabbie’s case drew national attention after HuffPost published videos showing how guards treated Sabbie before he died. Another Bi-State Jail detainee, 20-year-old Morgan Angerbauer, died in custody in July 2016. A former nurse at the facility pleaded guilty to misdemeanor negligent homicide in connection with the death of Angerbauer, who had severe diabetes.
Craven’s report, issued ahead of a federal civil trial over Sabbie’s death that is currently scheduled for April 22, describes the lack of training that Bi-State Jail guards received. Guards testified that they were only trained to look for “living breathing bodies,” and that there was a “normal practice” of falsifying records about inmate checks. The magistrate judge’s report recommends denying motions for summary judgment made by Bowie County, the city of Texarkana, the states of Texas and Arkansas and LaSalle Corrections.
Craven’s report says the officer who took Sabbie down to the ground “did not listen to Mr. Sabbie, attempt to calm him, or explain the consequences of his actions.” He used a takedown technique “unrecognizable” to law enforcement professionals, and Craven’s report notes that other experts said the use of pepper spray was unnecessary.
“Here, the evidence shows that at various times during his confinement, the security officers knew Mr. Sabbie faced obvious health risks,” Craven wrote. She said there is sufficient evidence that several staffers “knowingly disregarded Mr. Sabbie’s complaints, thus acting with deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.”
Some of the guards took photos of Sabbie in his cell when he was either dead or near death. The guards, Craven wrote, “entered Mr. Sabbie’s cell and found him lying on his back on the concrete floor, still wearing the wet, contaminated clothing, with his pants down, genitals exposed, arms above his head, eyes barely open, and with white froth oozing from his nostrils. The defendants took photos and then left, further evidence of deliberate indifference.”
She also wrote that a jury could find that the force used against Sabbie when he was thrown to the ground was excessive, because the guard “knew Mr. Sabbie was saying he could not breathe and the handheld video depicts Mr. Sabbie repeatedly saying he could not breathe while on the ground underneath five officers.”
Seven inmates escaped a Louisiana facility run by LaSalle Corrections last year, and one of the company’s facilities came under investigation for underpaying guards who were working with federal inmates. In February, Texas’ Bowie County extended its contract with LaSalle Corrections for another year. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.