By ANN MONTAGUE
We often hear about abuse, brutality, mistreatment, and cover-ups in state and federal prisons, but county jails are seen as being more benign. County jails, after all, are either where people are being held while waiting for trial or where they have been given a short sentence for a misdemeanor.
Last year, the jail in Snohomish County, Wash., demonstrated how dangerous it could be for anyone who is incarcerated in the United States. This is where Michael Saffioti died at the age of 22. He had turned himself in because of an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for marijuana possession, and was immediately sent to jail.
Under the “War on Drugs,” police in the United States arrest almost 700,000 people a year for marijuana possession—overwhelmingly targeting people of color. Marijuana busts account for about a third of all arrests, more than for all violent crimes combined. Saffioti was just one more statistic among the tens of thousands of people sent to U.S. jails and prisons for marijuana offenses.
Unfortunately, Michael Saffioti suffered from extreme dairy allergies. This was noted in the medical files the guards kept on him—but they chose to ignore the information when it counted. On the day after he was admitted to the jail, a refusal by jail officials to respond adequately to what became a medical emergency cost Saffioti his life. Saffioti’s mother has now filed a lawsuit against the county.
Saffioti’s situation in the jail was recorded on video obtained by his mother. The video shows that on the morning of July 3, 2012, the inmates were lining up for breakfast in jail module E-4. Saffiotti is seen at the guard’s desk with his tray.
Cheryl Snow, the attorney for his mother, states, “Our theory is that they absolutely knew Michael’s medical needs.” The video shows him speaking about the food with the guard, the servers, and his fellow inmates.
“We know he asked questions and made inquiries about the oatmeal in the food and was told it was safe for eating,” Snow states. Within a few minutes, Saffiotti was back at the guard’s desk using his inhaler. He asked to see a nurse but was sent to his cell. He continued to press his call button, pleading for help, but was ignored. Half an hour later he was found unconscious in his cell. A nurse then performed CPR, and he was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead within 30 minutes.
Snow had to file a public records request to get the video—which was consistent with the statements of witnesses. The county had claimed the video did not exist. She was then prevented from interviewing jail staff or the responding medical personnel.
This was the eighth death in three years in Snohomish County Jail. The national Institute of Corrections blames the deaths on understaffing and overcrowding. But in regard to Saffioti’s situation, New York criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield describes other factors that should be obvious: “This young man’s death reflects the toxic mix of dehumanization, neglect, and deceit. To the guards these are not people, they are inmates, and that is what they do, complain. The problem is that every once and a while the complaint, like a life threatening allergy, is real. Not just real but brutally real.”
In fact, Michael Saffioti’s allergies were sometimes so severe that he was called “bubble boy.” According to his mother, Saffiotti smoked marijuana to help relieve his anxiety from the knowledge that his allergies were life threatening. The irony is that four months after his death, marijuana was legalized in the state of Washington. At that time, the state cleared all outstanding warrants for possession.