LAKELAND | The state is investigating what happened when four inmates, including one from Davenport, were trapped for hours in sweltering heat in the back of a prison van with no air conditioning and little or no ventilation.
Two of the inmates, through their mothers, say guards ignored their pleas about the heat and refused to even give them water during about a 200-mile trip from Avon Park to a Lake Butler prison hospital and reception facility on July 18.
All four men needed immediate hospitalization because they were severely ill from the trip, the women said.
State officials refused to answer most Ledger questions about what happened, saying they are looking into the matter.
“If someone treated dogs like this, they’d go to jail,” said Nona Bragg, the mother of one inmate.
“This is an unfortunate situation,” said Michael Crews, Florida Department of Corrections secretary.
The state has been investigating since July 23 and won’t release the names of the inmates and officers involved.
Bragg, of Tampa, said her son Joshua Wentworth, 27, was one of the men being driven from prison in Avon Park to Lake Butler. He was being sent there because of kidney problems that stemmed from dehydration.
Already sick, he got worse after being forced to sit in the back of the steaming van for hours. All four inmates begged for help but were ignored, Bragg said her son told her.
There were two corrections officers in the front of the van.
The inmates in the van “did the crime and are serving their time, and it’s not the guards’ decision to punish them more,” Bragg said.
Wentworth is serving a 15-year sentence on a variety of charges, including burglary of an occupied dwelling or vehicle and grand theft.
Greg Smith, 24, of Davenport, was another of the inmates, said his mother, Cathey Smith from Vero Beach. Her son was also having kidney problems, and that’s why he was put into the van for the ill-fated trip to the hospital.
Her son told her the inmates complained about no air conditioning and the accompanying scorching heat from the very start of the trip.
When the men later complained they were getting sick because of the heat, they were told by the guards, “You’ll be alright. Just hold each other’s hands,” Cathey Smith said.
Cathey Smith said her son told her that by the time they got to Gainesville, one of the inmates was convulsing in the back of the van. And she said hospital personnel told her that the van looked like it was on fire when they opened the back doors because of all the steam that poured out of it.
Nobody died in the incident, DOC officials said, but they would not discuss whether anyone was hospitalized or say what condition the inmates are in now.
Cathey Smith said she wants “both of the guards prosecuted to the fullest extent.”
The mothers of both of the inmates who spoke to The Ledger said Tuesday their sons have been released from the hospital but must remain in a nearby medical building for six weeks of treatment and tests.
Greg Smith is serving a seven-year sentence on Polk County charges of burglary of an occupied dwelling or vehicle.
Jessica Cary, director of communications for the department, said the two officers and four inmates initially loaded into a van, but the air conditioning didn’t work, so they switched to another one. She said she didn’t know how long the inmates were in the back of the first van, but the investigation would determine that.
Officials said the inmates were handcuffed and possibly shackled at the legs.
Cary said the inmates complained about air conditioning problems about 1½ hours into the trip, but she said they didn’t tell guards it was completely out.
About another 1½ hours later, she said, they complained it wasn’t working at all, and by that point, the guards were told to finish the trip. She said she could not yet disclose how long the trip took.
Crews, the DOC secretary, said his understanding was that the air wasn’t working in the front or the rear of the van.
Cary said that when the inmates said there was no air, the two officers rolled down the front windows in the van so some fresh air would seep into the back.
Wouldn’t the two officers have rolled down their windows sooner than the three-hour mark if the air wasn’t working where they sat? Officials at DOC said that will all be determined in the investigation.
Crews said DOC inmate transfer vans are equipped with two kinds of partitions that separate the officers from inmates. One is a metal mesh and the other is made of Plexiglas. Of the two, the metal partition provides more ventilation. DOC officials wouldn’t say which type of partition was in the van involved in this case.
In 2006, an agency-wide analysis was critical of what was described as an “extremely decrepit vehicle fleet” at DOC, one punctuated by vehicles with poor maintenance and high mileage.
Crews said high-mileage vehicles are still a problem, but DOC now has much better vehicle maintenance. He said the mileage on the vehicle involved in this incident will be divulged when the investigation is done.
The DOC would not say how long its investigation into the treatment of the inmates would take, but Crews said interviewing everyone involved shouldn’t take long.
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