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State probes handling of prison inmate who collapsed during mid-day exercise

TALLAHASSEE — A 21-year-old man lies in a coma in a Gainesville hospital after collapsing Monday in a sweltering prison exercise yard, and an investigation is under way to find out whether prison workers acted properly.

Samuel Joel Dread is in critical condition at Shands Hospital in a medically induced coma. A legal adviser to Gov. Charlie Crist asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to "gather facts, and evaluate the possibility of any illegal or improper actions" in the case.

Dread was taking unspecified medication and collapsed within hours of his arrival Monday at Lancaster Correctional Institution in Trenton, a lockup for youthful offenders near Gainesville.

He was taking part in a military-style extended day exercise program designed to instill self-discipline and self-esteem in prisoners.

"It's terrible. It's tragic," said Crist, who asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate.

Crist's deputy general counsel, J. Andrew Atkinson, told FDLE "there appear to be some questions surrounding this incident, including whether the prescription medications Mr. Dread was taking required him to avoid extreme temperatures."

The governor was briefed on the case Tuesday night and directed Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil to call a news conference Wednesday to reveal the incident. But before McNeil addressed the public, he took the unusual step of alerting the NAACP. He said he did so because the circumstances mirror the case of Martin Lee Anderson, a teenager who died at a Panama City boot camp in 2006, leading to racially charged protests.

The 5-foot-6, 140-pound Dread was serving a 10-year sentence for robbery. News accounts in 2008 said that he fashioned two sticks to look like a gun and demanded cash from a clerk at a Walgreen's in Gainesville. Upon his arrest, he admitted a second robbery at a thrift store, telling police he couldn't keep a job and needed money.

Dread was unable to finish the prison's rigorous exercise program.

"At some point while engaged in outdoor physical exercise, Mr. Dread expressed that he could no longer continue, at which point he was told to stop,'' wrote Atkinson. "Shortly thereafter, his medical condition deteriorated and he was transported to the Shands medical facility in Gainesville, where he was placed and remains in a medically induced coma."

Prison spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger confirmed that Dread was on medication. "I don't believe the medication prohibited strenuous physical activity, but that's one of the things that will be looked at," she said in an e-mail response to an inquiry.

McNeil said that Dread underwent a brief medical evaluation and was directed to join other inmates in an exercise regimen consisting of marching drills, push-ups, simulated mountain climbs and other activities.

The temperature was 86 degrees at around 2:30 p.m. when the incident occurred, McNeil said.

"At some point during the exercise, the inmate indicated he could no longer do the exercise and asked for medical assistance," McNeil said. "The officer called the medical team and the inmate at that point collapsed."

McNeil said three prison medical staffers iced the inmate down, put him on a stretcher and summoned an ambulance.

"We are optimistic at this point and hopeful that the youth will have a full recovery, but we are obviously very, very concerned," McNeil said.

"I think heat is a factor,'' he said, adding: "There is no indication of a crime having been committed.''

According to the agency's website, the Gilchrist County prison has a maximum capacity of 570, and houses Lancaster Work Camp. It incarcerates male inmates ages 19 to 24.

The death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson on Jan. 6, 2006, was a landmark event in the Florida prison system.

Anderson died a day after being hit and kicked by guards. A videotape of the 30-minute incident drew national attention and led to the shutdown of boot camps for juvenile offenders in Florida. Anderson had just been assigned to the camp after he was caught trespassing at a school, which violated his probation on another charge.

A coroner initially ruled that Anderson died because of a fatal hemorrhage related to a undiagnosed case of sickle cell anemia trait. Protests of that ruling inspired then-Gov. Jeb Bush to order an independent prosecutor to look into the case.

A subsequent autopsy determined that guards killed Anderson by depriving him of oxygen when they pushed the ammonia tablets into his nose and covered his mouth.

A jury in Panama City acquitted the guards and a nurse of manslaughter. Jurors said they agreed with the contention of the guards' attorneys that the men were employing widely accepted boot camp tactics and that the death was caused by the sickle cell trait.

Dale Landry of the Tallahassee branch of the NAACP, a long-time associate of McNeil's who was briefed on the case, said he trusted McNeil, a former Tallahassee police chief, to oversee a full and fair investigation.

"We have every faith and belief in him,'' he said. "If something is wrong or if any individual has done anything wrong, they will deal with that."

Information from the Independent Florida Alligator and Gainesville Sun was included in this report. Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

State probes handling of prison inmate who collapsed during mid-day exercise 05/26/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 11:24pm]
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