“I can’t breathe.”
That’s what Michael Sabbie told corrections officers nearly 20 times, as he lay gasping and heaving for breath in the hallways of a private jail in July 2015 — just hours before officers found him dead in his cell. His death was later ruled to be from natural causes, but in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, Sabbie’s family accuse the jail and several of its employees of violating the 35-year-old’s civil rights and ultimately causing his death through “deliberate indifference” to his medical needs.
Sabbie, who was jailed after a verbal domestic dispute with his wife, told intake staff at Texas’ Bi-State Justice Center that he “suffered from heart disease, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and other medical conditions,” according to the lawsuit, conditions for which he took several prescription medications. But in the three days that Sabbie waited in jail, he allegedly never received that medication and was never properly medically evaluated.
By the time Sabbie, who was black, showed up in court to plead “not guilty” to a misdemeanor assault charge days later, court officials apparently noticed that Sabbie was struggling to breathe and sweating. But it was after that court appearance that Sabbie’s condition appeared to deteriorate markedly.
That deterioration was caught on two separate videos.
The first, which lacks sound and was apparently shot by a jail hallway camera, appears to begin as Sabbie and several other prisoners are being led back from court. Sabbie stops and leans forward, seemingly struggling to breathe, as an officer approaches him. Sabbie walks away from the officer, who grabs him roughly and throws him to the ground. Several other officers pile on top of Sabbie.
The second video, which does have sound and is shot on a handheld camera to document the use of force, starts soon afterwards. An officer sprays Sabbie with what the lawsuit alleges is pepper spray. Then Sabbie, who repeatedly tells corrections officers, “I can’t breathe,” is taken to a room marked “medical.” A woman who appears to be a nurse examines Sabbie for less than a minute, though an officer’s body obscures from the camera what exactly the examination consists of.
Sabbie gasps for breath almost constantly throughout the video; his heaving is audible even when he’s buried under the pile of corrections officers. At one point, while in the shower — which he was shepherded into for “decontamination,” one of the officers claims on video — Sabbie even appears to collapse unconscious.
The video ends after officers lead Sabbie back to his cell, or “pod.” According to the lawsuit, a corrections officer was assigned to check in on Sabbie throughout the night, but failed to do so and falsely claimed she did.
“His body was stiff and cold to the touch. It is not yet known how long Mr. Sabbie lay dead while jail staff ignored him,” the lawsuit reads. “However, had defendants summoned appropriate medical care at any point before his death, Mr. Sabbie could have been saved and would still be alive today.”
“The failure to secure needed medical care for Mr. Sabbie was motivated by constitutionally impermissible profit-driven reasons,” it adds. LaSalle Corrections, the Bi-State Justice Center’s operator and one of the defendants named in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment. Other defendants named in the lawsuit, which is seeking unspecified damages, include several of the corrections officers involved in Sabbie’s death, Texas’ Bowie County, and the city of Texarkana, Arkansas.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department moved to end its use of private prisons. In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled his plans to bring them back.
One of the Sabbie family’s lawyers, Erik Heipt, told NBC News that the question of whether race played a role in Sabbie’s death will be examined as the lawsuit progresses. But his final words — ”I can’t breathe” — are the same as Eric Garner’s, a black American who died in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by a New York Police Department officer.