In July of last year, 22-year-old Michael Saffioti surrendered himself to Snohomish County on an outstanding misdemeanor marijuana possession warrant. Within 24 hours, he was dead.
Saffioti's crime was nonviolent and minor even by the rigid standards of the war on drugs. The offender had turned himself in. But Snohomish County authorities nonetheless immediately jailed him, setting off a series of events that ended in tragedy. What happened next was recorded in recently-released video from the security camera in jail module E-4.
Early in the morning of July 3, inmates arrive from the kitchen and begin serving breakfast. The cell block lines up and, one by one, the men receive their trays and sit down to eat. But Saffioti stops at the guard's desk and gestures at his tray. He eventually sits down, but apparently continues discussing his food with servers, the guard, and fellow inmates. Some have finished eating by the time he takes his first bites.
Saffioti had a rare and serious dietary allergy. His mother says he took constant precautions to protect himself, even checking the mouth of the first girl he kissed. Saffioti knew that the jail had a record of his condition from a previous arrest, but his conversations show that he was still distrustful of the food he had been served. Those suspicions proved justified.
No special diet trays were delivered to module E-4 that morning. Within minutes, Saffioti can be seen standing at the guard's desk with his inhaler. He allegedly asked for a nurse; instead he was sent to his cell. For a half hour Saffioti jumps up and down, at times appearing to shout. Other inmates look in to his cell, but no guard or nurse responds. Finally, about 35 minutes after he ate, a guard discovers Saffioti unconscious in his cell and raises the alarm. Within the hour, he was pronounced dead.
The county at first refused to turn over the incriminating video, denying its existence and then releasing an edited version. Only now has the family obtained the entire video, using it as the basis for a $10 million lawsuit. Attorneys for the family have so far not been allowed to interview guards and first responders.
Saffioti's death was the result of many things, not least callous indifference, bureaucratic incompetence, and a tragic illness. But it is important to remember that he would not have been in jail at all but for America's harsh marijuana laws. Michael Saffioti may be dead, but the war on drugs continues unabated.