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Lawsuit Against Private Prison Firm Over Prisoner’s Death at Texarkana Jail

by Matthew Clarke

The family of a prisoner who died at the Bi-State Jail in Texarkana has filed a federal civil rights suit alleging his death resulted from inadequate medical care.

The jail is unique in that it straddles the border of Texas and Arkansas in a city that spreads out over four counties in two states. The 164-bed facility, opened in 1985, is run by a for-profit company, LaSalle Corrections, and used by law enforcement agencies in both Texas and Arkansas.

On July 19, 2015, Michael Sabbie, 35, was arrested on suspicion of verbal assault, a Class C misdemeanor, in Texarkana, Arkansas after he had an argument with his wife during which he allegedly threatened her. He was booked into the jail.

During the intake process, Sabbie told a nurse he had heart trouble, diabetes, mental illness, a communicable disease, asthma and hypertension, and reported he had suffered from congestive heart failure. He also complained of shortness of breath and told the nurse he had pneumonia prior to his arrest. [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.43].

Sabbie’s complaints about shortness of breath continued over the next two days. He was seen twice by nurses, but sent away without treatment and, at least once, without even a rudimentary check of his vital signs. Then he was returned to his cell.

Sabbie was taken to court where a bailiff noticed he was “coughing and sweating heavily around the head and face area.” He appeared before an Arkansas City District Court judge, who noticed his shortness of breath and asked if he wanted to sit. Sabbie replied that he had been spitting up blood and needed to go to a hospital. He was instead sent back to the jail.

As he and 10 other prisoners were being returned to their cells, Sabbie paused with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Jailer Clint Brown then threw him to the ground and five other guards piled on. During the incident, which was video-recorded, Sabbie kept repeating, “I can’t breathe.” Lt. Nathaniel Johnson arrived and pepper sprayed him.

The guards then pulled Sabbie to his feet and escorted him to a nurse, who performed a perfunctory examination before sending him away again. The whole time, the video showed Sabbie gasping for breath. A guard wrote a disciplinary report, charging Sabbie with “creating a disturbance” by “feining [sic] illness and difficulty breathing.”

The guards then took him to a shower for “decontamination.” He collapsed to the floor, but eventually got up and was taken to his cell, still complaining of being unable to breathe. He was found dead the next morning, two days after entering the jail.

Aided by attorney Erik Heipt, Sabbie’s family, including his widow and three children, filed a civil rights complaint on May 24, 2017 against Southwestern Correctional LLC, d/b/a LaSalle Corrections, and Bowie County and the City of Texarkana, Arkansas. Heipt obtained copies of the video recordings, which disproved jail officials’ attempts to make it appear they found Sabbie dead on the floor of his cell with no explanation as to how he died. The lawsuit noted 19 times he was recorded saying, “I can’t breathe.”

“The senselessness of his death has affected me deeply,” stated Sabbie’s widow, Teresa Sabbie. “It was totally preventable. It sickens me to know he needed to go to the hospital and was denied. They treated him as if his life did not matter.”

“They want to expose what happened in the hopes that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Heipt said of the family’s suit.

A custodial death report listed the cause of Sabbie’s death as natural and mentioned his collapsing in the shower as “Sabbie sat down in the shower.” Jail staff likely would have gotten away with whitewashing his death had it not been for the video recordings. The district court denied a motion to dismiss filed by the defendants on November 30, 2017, and the case remains pending. See: Sabbie v. Southwestern Correctional, LLC, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Texas), Case No. 5:17-cv-00113-RWS-CMC.

“Michael Sabbie is not the first inmate to die after being written up for faking an illness,” Heipt told the Huffington Post. “And if we allow this sort of reckless disregard for human life to continue in our county jails, he won’t be the last.” 

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Related legal case

Sabbie v. Southwestern Correctional, LLC