Family says death of 36-year-old Polk County inmate was preventable

8 On Your Side

BARTOW, Fla. (WFLA) – Hugh Stewart was found unresponsive at a medical facility of the Polk County jail on July 8, 2019. The 36-year-old was rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. Family members tell 8 On Your Side, Hugh had continuously pleaded to be transferred to a hospital for more serious medical treatment but that did not happen in time.

“Every time I think about my brother, I just keep shaking my head,” said Michael Stewart.

Michael, a petty officer second class in the U.S. Navy, was serving his country overseas when he got the news.

“It was very heartbreaking for me,” he said.

8 On Your Side spoke with the Stewart family as they were planning Hugh’s funeral.

Michael is the first to admit his older brother was no saint. He had a significant criminal history dating back to 2002.

On August 7, 2018, Hugh was arrested for stealing a car from a dealership in Haines City and then leading deputies on a chase.

“He committed his crime and he was doing his time for that,” said Michael.

Loved ones say they feel that Hugh indirectly paid for his crime with his life. They say his death was potentially preventable with intensive medical care at a hospital, not the jail’s medical facility.

“Imagine that being your son…imagine them being on their last leg and begging to have some kind of medical attention and not being able to get that.”

Hugh had multiple serious medical issues. He had been housed at the jail’s medical facilities since his arrest in 2018.

The 36-year-old was being treated for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, heart disease and other serious conditions.

Right now, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office says there are four independent investigations into this case, per procedure.

A Polk County Sheriff’s spokeswoman tells 8 On Your Side the Sheriff is committed to providing the best healthcare for all inmates in custody. They say more information can be released once all of the investigations are complete.

An initial review by the Medical Examiner’s Office determined Hugh died a natural death with no physical trauma. The autopsy showed Hugh had abnormal heart tissue and Fibrinous Pericarditis. The official cause and manner of death will be determined after toxicology is complete.

“You could see that he was sick,” said Cheryl Stewart, Hugh’s mother.

Mrs. Stewart said Hugh had been briefly hospitalized at the end of April.  Afterward, he sent her a note saying, “the doctor said my heart is only working 25%.”

Mrs. Stewart said that she contacted the jail and spoke with medical staff for weeks. Despite her warnings, Mrs. Stewart said nurses did not think a transfer was necessary.

“I feel sad,” she said. “Just start getting flashes of him not being able to breathe.”

Hugh is the seventh inmate to die while in custody at the Polk County Jail. Previous news releases document the serious medical conditions of the now-deceased inmates.

8 On Your Side will continue to follow this story.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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