Prison Allergy Death Sparks Investigation

in Food Allergy, Milk & Egg
Published: December 3, 2012

Update January 2013: Many Allergic Living readers expressed concern about the death in prison of Michael Saffioti, a Washington State man with severe dairy allergy and asthma. In early January, the Snohomish County Prosecutor made the decision not to lay any charges, based on a 400-page report compiled by the County Sherriff’s Office. The report has not been made public, but Saffioti’s mother says she and her lawyer will be reviewing it. Saffioti was supposed to be housed in the medical wing of the jail, but was not.

The following article is from the Winter 2013 issue of Allergic Living magazine.

Michael Saffioti’s mom Rose thought her 22-year-old son was doing the right thing by turning himself into police after a missed court date last July. But for the Washington state man, who had a life-threatening allergy to dairy, one night in jail turned into a death sentence.

The young man had landed in the court system on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge – he spoke of using pot to curb crippling anxiety about his food allergy and asthma – and then a legal technicality led to him spending a night in the county prison.

Under normal circumstances, he would have gone before a judge then been released, but Saffioti never made it past breakfast. According to witness testimony from fellow inmates, the young man was given a meal that included a pancake and oatmeal, and when he reminded staff of his dairy allergy, they removed the pancake and told him the oatmeal was safe.

After a few spoonfuls, Saffioti began having difficulty breathing and asked for his asthma medication. Soon after, the prisoners were locked into their cells and the guards changed shifts. Saffioti’s reaction continued to worsen. According to Anne Bremner, the Seattle lawyer representing the family, Saffioti pressed his emergency button and called for medical help, but his emergency light got turned off; as his breathing grew more labored, Saffioti pleaded for someone to call 911.

Other inmates say they began pressing their emergency buttons and yelling for help, making clear that this guy was not faking. Their calls were ignored.

Saffioti was supposed to be housed in the prison’s medical ward, and his mother had made sure that corrections staff had his asthma medication, EpiPen auto-injector and medical records, and yet no help came for at least 20 minutes. A prison trustee (an inmate who has work privileges) said he watched in horror as Saffioti finally collapsed in his cell. By the time paramedics arrived, it was too late.

“The trustee is a tough guy, but he said it’s the worst thing he’s ever seen,” says Bremner. “They let this guy die, and he was begging for help.”

For Rose Saffioti, a registered nurse, the news was devastating. After dropping her son at the police station, she called to make sure he was OK, and was reassured that he had been transferred to the prison with his medication and everything was fine. The next morning the hospital called to say her son was dead. “There was a point where he knew he wasn’t going to get help in time,” she says. “He knew he was going to die. That’s the worst part for me.”

Rose, who runs a bistro in Mukilteo, Washington, is determined to make sure the same thing won’t happen again, and she is demanding that criminal negligence charges be laid.

Shari Ireton, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s director of communications, could not comment on case specifics, but confirmed that, in theory, criminal charges could be laid depending on the outcome of the sheriff’s office investigation. Its findings are expected near the end of 2012.

Ireton confirmed that the corrections facility has a medical ward, but she did not know whether Saffioti was housed there. “Believe me, we want to know the answers as well,” she said. “We will definitely be releasing the information to the public.”

As for Rose Saffioti, she is determined to see the matter go to court. “I know my son tried to get help for at least 20 minutes, until he couldn’t talk any more,” she says. “I’m not going to let that go.”

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