AG’s office scrutinizes cause of prisoner death

Posted July 30, 2010, at 9:45 p.m.

WARREN, Maine — The Maine Attorney General’s Office is investigating the 2009 death of an inmate at the Maine State Prison that authorities initially reported as not suspicious.

Victor Valdez, 52, died last November inside a medical unit at the prison, reportedly from natural medical causes.

However, Judy Garvey, who represents the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said state officials have not told the whole story of his death, and she contends Valdez’s death came at the hands of prison guards.

Garvey said her group received letters from numerous other inmates that alleged misconduct. The letters indicated that Valdez was hard of hearing and that he spoke and understood little English. The prisoner also was believed to have an underlying medical condition that affected his kidneys, and he was undergoing dialysis to help remove impurities from his blood.

During an emergency situation at the prison a few days before Valdez died, inmates were asked to return to their cells immediately, according to Garvey, and Valdez, who was in a common area, did not comply right away. Garvey said prison officers beat him and later used pepper spray to subdue him.

“A day or two after he was first injured, we got letters from other prisoners that said, ‘Please do something before he dies.’ All the letters told the same story,” Garvey said Friday.

About a week after the alleged assault, Valdez died.

Garvey said she has pressed for answers about where and how Valdez died, but has received none. She did discover that no autopsy was performed and that Valdez’s body was cremated.

In early December, the Maine Department of Corrections said Valdez died of medical causes and that his death was not suspicious.

Denise Lord, Maine’s associate commissioner of corrections, said Friday that little has changed from her perspective, but she said the Attorney General’s Office probe would provide the final resolution.

“They have had the case for some time,” she said of the Attorney General’s Office. “What happens when there is a prisoner death is we notify state police and they do their own review to see if further action is necessary. We’re as eager as anyone else for this to be concluded, and we’ll deal with whatever comes out of that.”

Kate Simmons, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the review is not complete and that she couldn’t release information for two reasons. One, it’s an ongoing investigation, and two, the case involves Valdez’s health history, which is protected.

“Our involvement is standard in any death that could be a homicide, but that doesn’t mean he was killed,” she said. “There have been concerns by some, and we’re working to investigate those concerns.”

The death on Nov. 27 was the second in less than eight months at Maine’s largest prison. Inmate Sheldon Weinstein, a convicted sex offender, died on April 23, 2009, of blunt force injuries he received at the hands of other inmates. No one has been charged.

So far, Weinstein’s death has led to the firing of one prison guard and the demotion of another after an internal investigation by the Department of Corrections. Simmons said that case is still under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office.

As for Valdez, Garvey said the whole incident could and should have been avoided.

“He weighed 145 pounds and was ill; he couldn’t have put up a big fight,” she said. “He was not a violent man. He was not in there for some horrific crime. This didn’t need to happen.”

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