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Today's Drug War Outrage: Man Dies In Jail Cell After Misdemeanor Pot Offense

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SAFFIOTI
KOMO, Saffioti family.

Today's story is part drug war, part police indifference and callousness, part police cover-up. It comes by way of a lawsuit filed by the family of Michael Saffioti.

Saffioti failed to make a court date on a misdemeanor charge for pot possession. In July of last year, he surrendered himself to Snohomish County, Washington authorities, who promptly jailed him. (The streets of Snohomish County were a little safer that day.) When it came time for breakfast the following morning, Saffioti is seen on video having a conversation with a guard while holding his tray. Presumably, he was inquiring about any dairy products in the meal. Saffioti had a severe allergy. He's then seen taking a few bites of some oatmeal. (You can watch the video here.)

The awfulness that followed is detailed by KIRO TV.

Within a few minutes, Saffioti was back at the guard desk, using his inhaler.

According to the legal claim, he asked to see a nurse.

Instead, he was sent to his cell.

Over the next half hour, the video shows other inmates looking in Saffioti's cell as he jumped up and down.

The legal claim says he pressed his call button and was ignored.

It also alleges that the guards told him h was "faking."

About 35 minutes after he ate, a guard found Saffioti unconscious in his cell. The guard called for help and Saffioti was dragged out.

Nurses arrived and performed CPR. Everett firefighters took over and rushed Saffioti to the hospital where he was pronounced dead a half hour later.

Then the coverup began. County officials stonewalled Saffioti's mother's attempts to obtain video of the events leading to her son's death, first by denying its existence. After Saffioti's family discovered the police had lied about that, they turned over only non-incriminating portions of the video. The family was eventually able to force them to hand over the entire thing. So far, attorneys for the family have also been barred from interviewing jail staff or responding medical personnel.

This is the eighth death in the Snohomish jail in three years. Johnathin Vankin reports that "a recent investigation by the National Institute of Corrections found that the jail’s health department is seriously understaffed and that overcrowding in the jail has caused serious safety hazards."

But New York criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield points out that this is about more than just staffing and funding.

This young man’s death reflects the toxic mix of dehumanization, neglect and deceit. Inmates complain constantly about nearly every aspect of life in jail. The accommodations don’t suit many, and there isn’t much reason not to complain. The product is that complaints are ignored.

After all, to the guards, these aren’t people, but inmates. That’s what inmates do, complain. Do something about the complaints and they’ll just be back complaining about something else tomorrow. Ignore them and they’ll still be back, but it’s easier to just ignore them again tomorrow.

The problem is that every once in a while, a complaint, like a life-threatening food allergy, is real. Not just real, but brutally real. To take the time to listen, to hear, to take seriously, a complaint is more than a guard can bear. Jails are all about routine, and routine applies to everyone. To expect CO’s to treat inmates like people, to take the time to distinguish between real complaints and the typical noise is to expect them to be caring, intelligent people. That’s not part of the routine.

Saffioti's food allergies were apparently so severe that he was sometimes called "bubble boy." His condition required constant attention. According to his mother, the knowledge that the smallest break in vigilance could result in his death caused Saffioti a lot of anxiety. Understandably so. She says he smoked pot to help relieve that anxiety. As both Greenfield and Vankin point out, the cruel irony here is that four months after Saffioti's death, recreational pot was legalized in Washington state.

The story is reminiscent of the Jonathan Magbie tragedy. Magbie was a quadriplegic who was allowed to die in a Washington, D.C. jail cell while serving a 10-day sentence for possession of pot. He was jailed despite no prior convictions, and in spite of his need of constant care to stay alive. According to his mother, Magbie smoked pot to treat the effects of his paralysis. Medical pot is now legal in D.C., and the city looks poised to at least decriminalize pot for recreational use, if not legalize it outright.

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Filed by Radley Balko