Victor Valdez, a middle-aged immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was declared dead at Maine State Prison last November, was determined by Deputy Attorney General William Stokes to have died of “natural causes” in a brief report released on Oct. 28. His explanation? “There is no evidence to support that the death of Mr. Valdez was the result of foul play or was otherwise suspicious.”
Questions remain, however, including a vital one: Would it be reasonable to expect that security and medical logs would offer evidence of foul play in a system renowned for obfuscation and self-policing?
Valdez suffered from a range of health problems, including congestive heart failure, lung problems, cirrhosis of the liver and severe kidney disease that required dialysis several times a week. It appears that he was a ticking time bomb, exacerbated by requiring treatment that was largely inaccessible.
A spokesperson for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition understatedly attributed the AG’s decision to a failure of transparency and expressed concern for other prisoners in Maine.
It might be advisable to back up a bit and review the circumstances surrounding Valdez’s death.
Valdez had been “lugged” from his prison housing unit to solitary confinement several days before his death. The circumstances surrounding his extraction are well-documented, albeit by other prisoners on the scene: High physical resistance and a lot of blood. It reportedly took four guards to subdue this critically ill prisoner, who apparently did not understand why he was being put into solitary confinement.
His death was recorded by an infirmary staff member. There was no medical examiner to officially determine either the cause of death or the time of death. Prison officials quickly obtained permission from his mother in New York, who was about to board a plane back to the Dominican Republic and whose command of English and constitutional rights was at best suspect, to cremate the body.
Victor Valdez was summarily reduced to an urn of ashes.
The AG’s decision neatly dispatches the Valdez matter for the history books. There is no evidence of foul play. Of course, having reduced Valdez to an urn of ashes, there simply is no evidence. Period.
In light of the yet-unresolved and potentially volatile case of the April 24, 2009, death of prisoner Sheldon Weinstein in solitary, is it possible that staff consciously skirted a state police investigation of Valdez as an unattended death in either solitary or the infirmary?
With no outside, independent verification of the circumstances, we have no ability to test the veracity of the record.
While Valdez reportedly signed a medical waiver at some point, did he understand English sufficiently to know what he was signing? Was he so frightened as to be incompetent? Was he under duress?
The practice of handling every crisis internally from within the Department of Corrections with no outside verification has to stop. Maine State Prison has for far too long enjoyed a history of creating its own reality and ignoring the right of the public to know what is going on in there on the grounds that its task is beyond public understanding.
The death of Victor Valdez has been swept under the bureaucratic carpet by the AG’s report. We wonder what the evidence did show. There is evidence that a critically ill prisoner was placed in solitary for disciplinary reasons rather than under care for medical reasons. There is evidence that Valdez was a difficult prisoner to manage. There is evidence that no medical examiner was called to certify his death, a minor detail covered in the death of every human being in America except for those in prison. There is evidence that no autopsy was ordered, presumably because his medical condition suggested death by natural causes. There is evidence that neither the public nor the AG’s Office has any idea what goes on inside Maine’s prison system.
Absent a medical examiner’s report, there is evidence only that Valdez died and is now an urn of ashes sent home to his family.
May God have mercy on all of us involved in this callous display of disrespect for human life and dignity.
Stan Moody of Manchester is a former state representative and most recently a chaplain at Maine State Prison in Warren. He will present a lecture on the need for prison reform in Maine and the U.S. at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Lovejoy Hall 215 at Colby College, Waterville. Also on Nov. 17, the statewide Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition will demonstrate at 10:30 a.m. at the State House to rally support for a federal investigation into Victor Valdez’s death. For information, visit pwww.maineprisoneradvocacy.org.