AUGUSTA, Maine — Prisoner advocates are planning to hold a protest next week at the state Capitol in memory of Maine State Prison inmate Victor Valdez of Portland, who died a year ago under circumstances that reformers find disturbing.
“We’re trying to get the people of Maine involved in really looking at what happened,” Judy Garvey, a spokeswoman for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said Wednesday. “This is a way of doing our own memorial for Victor Valdez. It’s a memorial, in a way, to honor him, because he was just shunted aside and whisked off and cremated.”
Prison officials have said that Valdez, 52, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was serving a four-year sentence for assault and who suffered from kidney disease, died in a medical unit at the prison in Warren last Nov. 27. He was cremated shortly after his death and before an autopsy was conducted, because cremation was the least expensive option available to his family, according to the officials.
The Maine Attorney General’s Office, which investigated his death, announced at the end of October that it was not a homicide.
“Mr. Valdez’s death was a natural death brought on by serious medical conditions from which he suffered,” Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said.
However, Garvey and other prisoner advocates say that there are just too many unanswered questions, which is why they have secured permission to use the State House’s Hall of Flags for the protest.
During the event, which Garvey said has attracted a “huge” amount of interest, advocates will present a “people’s indictment” of state corrections leaders, will call for a federal investigation into Valdez’s death and ask for more transparency from the Department of Corrections.
The coalition has received more than a dozen letters from other inmates, some of which were written in Valdez’s native Spanish, describing what Garvey calls the systematic abuse that the inmate had suffered from prison guards. Many were received before his death and asked for the coalition’s help in obtaining medical assistance for Valdez, Garvey said.
She and other advocates believe that the incident that led to Valdez’s death occurred on Nov. 19 and took place in the prison day room. According to letters received from other prisoners who were witnesses, Valdez had been heating a microwave dinner when there was a temporary lockdown at the facility. A guard told Valdez to go to his cell, other prisoners wrote the coalition, but the Spanish-speaking man may not have heard or understood. Garvey said that guards reportedly took Valdez away, ripped his dialysis tubes out and took him to solitary confinement.
“We have reports that were mailed to us from a dozen first-hand witnesses,” she said. “They all told the same story. We know that there’s a prejudice against trusting prisoners, but the people that shared their life with Victor before he died all felt uniformly positive about him — and felt uniformly bad and sorry that he got harmed in that way.”
Last month, Department of Corrections Assistant Commissioner Denise Lord said her agency cannot share specifics about Valdez’s death because it is confidential medical information, and that the Attorney General’s Office conducted its review because it was responding to concerns raised by a number of people.
“We wanted to resolve the controversy,” she said. “I just have to accept that they did a thorough job and that their conclusion is well-founded.”
But Garvey isn’t so sure.
“I’ve heard that not once in Maine history has an officer or policeman been found guilty who has been accused of harming a member of the public or a prisoner,” she said.
According to statistics provided by the Attorney General’s Office for a BDN article from July, police in Maine have used deadly force 82 times in the last 20 years. In 44 cases, the use of force resulted in death. In none of those cases was an incident of deadly force ruled not justified.
“Victor is not the only one who has died under very suspicious circumstances,” Garvey said. “We’re singling out Victor because it was such a terrible, terrible event.”
The Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition’s demonstration will take place at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 17, at the State House’s Hall of Flags. For more information, go to the website www.maineprisoneradvocacy.org.