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A Times Editorial

Inmate's collapse leaves unanswered questions

Serious questions surround the circumstances of Samuel Joel Dread's collapse. The 20-year-old landed in a medically induced coma last week after taking part in extended exercises in sweltering heat at Lancaster Correctional Institution, a facility for youthful offenders in North Florida. And the state owes everyone some answers.

Did the LCI medical staff clear Dread for strenuous exercise without making sure his health and the prescriptions he was taking allowed for it?

Did those supervising the exercises provide inmates with the hydration, shade and rest needed in the Florida heat?

An investigation has been launched, and the Department of Corrections is to be commended for quickly coming forward. But much more needs to be known about the young man's case and the exercise program at the prison.

Dread, who is serving a 10-year sentence for robbery, had been participating in a military-style, extended-day exercise program of marching drills, push-ups, simulated mountain climbs and other activities in 86-degree heat. According to DOC, Dread had received a brief medical evaluation before being ordered to participate in the physical regimen. Dread's mother says her son was on Prozac for schizophrenia and was taking a second drug to reduce Prozac's side effects, which may have made Dread more susceptible to sunstroke.

This is just the kind of incident that in years past would have caused a circling of the wagons by the DOC. That didn't happen in this case, to the credit of Gov. Charlie Crist and Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil.

Crist requested an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and instructed McNeil to hold a news conference. McNeil also contacted the NAACP to allay any racial tensions that might arise due to the similarity between this case and that of Martin Lee Anderson, who died a day after being beaten by guards at a Panama City boot camp in 2006. That incident led to the elimination of boot camps in Florida. McNeil has also placed two LCI correctional officers who were in charge of new inmate orientation on administrative leave due to their conflicting witness statements.

DOC spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger says the exercise program has been in place since 1996 and no one can remember an incident in which an inmate collapsed and had to be hospitalized or admitted to the infirmary. Still, the department is reviewing its safety manuals on heat exposure for inmates and staff engaging in outdoor exercise and work. And Plessinger says the department is looking at other states' standards. In the meantime, the inmates have been moved to another area of the compound where there is more shade.

The candor by the state is refreshing. Continuing in that mode, the investigation should be thorough and transparent, and hopefully the public will one day hear from Dread. There are still plenty of questions that need answers.

Inmate's collapse leaves unanswered questions 06/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 3, 2010 7:54pm]

    

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