michael sabbie_3
Inmate dies after altercation with jail guards
01:34 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Video of Texas prisoner's last hours illuminates debate about privatized healthcare in American jails and prisons

Activist: Privatized care is "so bare-bones ... there's much less understanding on a human level that people might need care"

Correctional healthcare company says it follows American Medical Association standards

CNN  — 

With five prison guards on his back, Michael Sabbie takes a blast of pepper spray point-blank to the face. Guards then frog-march him to a nurse for a 40-second exam, take him to a shower, where he collapses, then toss him in an isolation cell.

In the span of 10 minutes, Sabbie drools, spits, apologizes, pleads. He never asks the guards to lift up his pants, despite his genitals and buttocks being exposed as he’s led through the halls of Texas’ Bi-State Jail.

At least a dozen times, he tells prison guards, “I can’t breathe.”

It’s that refrain – a mainstay of Black Lives Matter protests since Eric Garner died in New York in 2014 after uttering the same three words – that should have been one of many tipoffs that something was wrong, according to lawyers representing Sabbie’s family.

The next morning, on July 22, 2015, Sabbie was found dead in an isolation cell. A medical examiner said he died from natural causes.

Sabbie’s family, upset that the jail didn’t do more to help a stricken man, isn’t buying it.

The case illuminates an ongoing debate about the quality of privatized healthcare in American jails and prisons, which critics say sacrifices the well-being of inmates to satisfy bottom lines. Prison and prison health care companies counter that they save governments money and their services meet national standards.

Jail videos

There are two recently unearthed videos from Sabbie’s last full day. One is a prison surveillance video with no audio. It shows the 35-year-old inmate doubled over, hands on knees, talking to a prison guard. He walks away from the guard, who grabs him by the shirtsleeve and then collar of his prison jumpsuit, spinning him twice and hurling him to the ground.

The altercation began when Sabbie said he wanted to make a phone call and defied an order to return to his cell, his lawyers say.

Guards use pepper spray to help subdue Sabbie.

The second video, captured by a prison guard at the Texarkana, Texas, jail, begins with the guards on top of the 330-pound Sabbie and ends with him whimpering in his cell. A guard on the video can be heard saying they sprayed Sabbie with the chemical agent because he wouldn’t stop resisting the officers.

Texarkana Police Chief Robert Harrison handed the investigation to the FBI’s Little Rock, Arkansas, office on July 23, 2015, the day after Sabbie was found dead. In August of this year, the family received a U.S. Justice Department letter saying the “evidence does not establish a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes.”

Still, the family blames the for-profit firm running the jail, LaSalle Corrections, which they accuse of ignoring accepted medical procedures.

They also say the company refuses to provide transparency into the father of four’s death.

A woman answering the phone at LaSalle’s offices would not give CNN her name, nor would she provide a name for LaSalle’s media contact. “These are my instructions,” she said.

Robert “Jay” Eason, director of operations for LaSalle Corrections, later sent an email to CNN saying the company would not comment on the case due to pending litigation.

A Justice Department spokesman also declined this week to comment on the case.

‘Number-one complaint’

Experts say that although private prison and healthcare companies must follow state guidelines, a dearth of accountability means private prison and healthcare companies often don’t answer to taxpayers.

Marc Howard, director of the Georgetown University Prisons and Justice Initiative, says healthcare is poor “in all prison situations, but typically, it’s even worse in private prisons.”

Howard says he’s seen numerous cases of preventable deaths, low-quality care, delays in treatment, clinicians with questionable licenses, understaffing and substandard facilities.

Michael Sabbie, 35, was a father of four who loved his kids more than anything, his wife says.

“When it’s privatized, it’s so barebones, it’s so cutthroat, there’s much less understanding on a human level that people might need care,” Howard said.