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Florida investigates Duval jail medical provider after heart transplant recipient dies

Records showed the Duval jail knew what medicine Dexter Barry needed but never provided it.

The man pleaded multiple times to get his medication to prevent organ rejection and was denied. It's not the first time the jail's medical contractor was involved in an inmate's death.

The Florida Department of Management Services has opened an investigation into the contracted medical provider of the Duval County jail after the death of an inmate who did not receive needed organ rejection medication.

The state began the probe into Armor Correctional Services after learning the company was convicted in the death of a Wisconsin inmate in October 2022, according to the Tributary, a Northeast Florida news outlet that notified the state of the incident.

The Florida investigation comes a week after The Tributary asked the department why Armor was not on its convicted vendor list. Florida law prohibits public agencies from signing contracts with companies that have been convictedof a public entity crime.

The city of Jacksonville renewed its contract with the company in November 2022. The original contract was signed in October 2017.

In November 2022, Dexter Barry, 54, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge shortly after receiving a heart transplant. According to records, he pleaded to receive needed medication with the arresting officer seven times back and alerted the jail nurse and a court judge about his condition.

In the two days Barry was held at Duval County Jail in Jacksonville no one allowed him access to the medication he desperately asked for. Three days after he was released from jail, Barry died from cardiac arrest.

The Tributary first reportedlast month on the jail’s failure to provide the medicine to Barry.

A spokesperson confirmed the city was unaware of Armor Correctional Service’s conviction in November.

The city did not identify who was responsible for reviewing Armor’s multimillion-dollar contract with the city. Armor gets paid a minimum of $18 million a year under its contract, with more money coming in depending on how many inmates the jail houses.

In a statement, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, said the agency “has administratively reviewed specific instances involving the care provided by Armor, and we have also asked that Armor conduct their own in-house review in light of recent events.”

“The contract between the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and Armor Health, a third-party medical care provider vendor, was entered into under a previous administration,” Sheriff’s Office spokesman Officer Christian Hancock said in an email. “After Sheriff (T.K.) Waters took office on November 20, 2022, he became fully involved in every aspect of the agency, including the day-to-day operations involving Armor and its medical care of inmates. As a result, Sheriff Waters and the members of his staff responsible for the safety and welfare of the inmate population began working with Armor personnel to improve processes and resolve challenges that were brought to their attention.”

"Sheriff Waters is committed to continuing to ensure every inmate receives all necessary medical and mental health care while in the custody of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.”

Asked whether news of the conviction will affect the current contract, the spokesperson said, “We encourage all of our contract managers to review their vendor’s performance as to the terms of their contract.”

The Tributary has requested an interview with Waters to no avail.

Local civil rights attorney Andrew Bonderud, who represents Barry's family, has called on city leaders to “act now.”

“This has the risk of becoming a contagion, a financial liability, if the city does not step in to make desperately needed changes to the way the jail is operated,” he said. “The Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the operations of the jail, but the city is responsible for paying any liability that arises from incidents in the jail.”

Bonderud told NPR the family plans to file a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office soon.

The family is also expected to file suit against Armor., according to The Tributary.

Barry's family insists that their loved one's death was entirely preventable had the jail staff taken Barry's pleas for his medication more seriously.

"There were so many people who could have prevented Dexter Barry's death," Bonderud told NPR. "It seems to me that one phone call to the right person from the right person would've made a difference."

Armor was convicted in the 2016 death of Milwaukee County Jail death of Terrill Thomas.

Thomas, 38, was found dead from dehydration on April 24, 2016, after he spent a week in his cell without water, according to local news reports. His death was ruled a homicide.

The company was found guilty on Oct. 11, 2022, of neglecting residents of a penal facility and falsifying health care records.

“It is extremely rare to prosecute a corporation. However, such a prosecution is justified in particularly egregious circumstances,” Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said in a news release after the conviction was announced. “Armor Correctional betrayed the trust of the people of Milwaukee County by not only neglecting Mr. Thomas and others, but also by attempting to hide the neglect by falsifying the medical records.”

Armor has been sued in federal court at least 370 times between its creation in 2005 to 2018. Those lawsuits range from accusations such as medical malpractice to wrongful death and employment issues. Seventy-seven lawsuits were filed the year Jacksonville signed its first contract.

In the seven years prior to Armor’s contract, 38 people died in Duval jail custody, according to public records. In the six years since the company took over, at least 65 deaths have been reported — a 71% increase over less time. Those deaths include people who were not given medications and who died by suicide or physical trauma, according to autopsy reports reviewed by The Tributary.

 Dexter Barry repeatedly asked for his heart transplant medicine while in the back of a police car.
Jacksonville Sheriff's Office video
via the Tributary
Dexter Barry repeatedly asked for his heart transplant medicine while in the back of a police car.

Jail staff who processed Barry’s intake noted his medications were “urgent,” and they verified the medications with the Walmart pharmacy Barry used, but the staff never administered the drugs.

Barry was arrested Nov. 18 and released Nov. 20 after posting $503 bond.

Dr. Jose SuarezHoyos, a private pathologist hired by Barry’s family, confirmed Barry died because his body rejected the heart. The pathologist said he didn’t feel medically qualified to connect Barry’s body rejecting his heart with the two days he spent in jail without taking his medications.

However, Dr. Maya Guglin, an Indiana cardiologist on the board at the American College of Cardiology, said organ transplant recipients have to take anti-rejection medications because their bodies view the new organ as an invasion that must be fought off.

“If you just drop those medications, everyone is eventually going to reject that organ,” she told the Tributary earlier.

Outside of Thursday’s statement about the Sheriff’s Office’s contract with Armor, the office has refused to answer questions about Barry, citing an administrative review of his death.

This story is published through a partnership between WJCT News and The Tributary, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom based in Northeast Florida.

Copyright 2023 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Nichole Manna - The Tributary