Federal investigation of inmate’s death sought

Posted Nov. 17, 2010, at 7:41 p.m.
Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition spoke Wednesday, Nov. 17 at a combination protest and press conference held at the Hall of Flags in the Maine State House to decry the treatment of Maine State Prison inmate Victor Valdez. He died at the prison last November under circumstances that the coalition believes are suspicious, although the Maine Attorney General's Office determined in October that his death was not a homicide. (Bangor Daily News/Abigail Curtis).
Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition spoke Wednesday, Nov. 17 at a combination protest and press conference held at the Hall of Flags in the Maine State House to decry the treatment of Maine State Prison inmate Victor Valdez. He died at the prison last November under circumstances that the coalition believes are suspicious, although the Maine Attorney General's Office determined in October that his death was not a homicide. (Bangor Daily News/Abigail Curtis).

AUGUSTA, Maine — Calling for a federal civil rights investigation into the 2009 death of Maine State Prison inmate Victor Valdez, prisoner advocates held a protest and press conference Wednesday morning in the Hall of Flags at the Maine State House.

“Victor Valdez was a very sick man. He suffered from kidney and other diseases,” Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said at the event. “But there is considerable testimony that he also suffered from very rough treatment — to the point of beatings — and withheld medical care at the hands of prison staff. We want to get to the bottom of this story. We don’t know exactly what happened to Victor Valdez, but we want to know, and the Maine public deserves to know.”

Garvey said that the coalition will ask the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the inmate’s death.

Valdez, 52, was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was serving a four-year sentence for assault when he died at the prison last November under controversial circumstances.

An autopsy was not performed on Valdez, whose body was cremated shortly after his death. Corrections officials have said that cremation was the least expensive option available to the inmate’s family.

In October, the Maine Attorney General’s Office determined after a months-long investigation that Valdez’s death was not a homicide but instead brought on by his serious medical conditions.

Assistant Commissioner Denise Lord of the Maine Department of Corrections said Wednesday that the department is satisfied with the Attorney General’s Office findings.

“When people had concerns about this particular prisoner’s death, the Attorney General’s Office stepped in,” she said. “The results of the Attorney General’s Office’s independent investigation is that there was no criminal wrongdoing. That answer is obviously not satisfactory [to the coalition]. My response [to them] is, in order to satisfy the concerns that were raised by others about this, we had this independent review. It’s unfortunate that the results of that review aren’t in keeping with what you believe or suspect.”

But coalition members dispute those findings. The group began receiving worried letters from inmates after an incident that happened on Nov. 19, 2009, that members believe led to Valdez’s death. Prisoners who said they witnessed what happened wrote to the coalition stating that Valdez had been heating a microwave dinner in the prison dayroom when there was a temporary lockdown, or “off-hook.”

They wrote that a guard told Valdez to go to his cell, but that the frail, Spanish-speaking man may not have heard or understood, and that he then was dragged to the prison’s Special Management Unit or SMU, which essentially is a solitary confinement cell block. The prisoners said the guards used pepper spray on him and also allegedly had him sign a paper written in English that said he wanted to refuse medical treatment.

“Today I watched an inmate who is very sick with kidney failure being abused and taken to solitary confinement,” wrote inmate Jeff Cookson. “He is elderly, his dialysis tubes were ripped out and he bled all over the place. He needs someone to come to the prison ASAP to check his injuries before he dies like an inmate a few months ago. Don’t let anyone who may check on this elderly man take no for an answer.”

The “other inmate” referred to is Sheldon Weinstein, a 63-year-old who uses a wheelchair and was killed at the Maine State Prison in April 2009 while serving a two-year sentence for a conviction of gross sexual assault against a child. Although his death has been deemed a homicide by the Maine State Police, the case remains under investigation and no charges have been filed.

Weinstein’s widow a year ago alerted the Attorney General’s Office that she intended to file a $1 million wrongful death lawsuit against the state. In the notice of claim, Janet Weinstein alleges that Maine State Prison personnel and Department of Corrections officials were involved in his death, because they were “deliberately indifferent to a culture of inmate violence in which jailhouse justice was meted out to inmates like Mr. Weinstein.”

One prison guard was fired and another demoted after the Department of Corrections conducted an internal investigation into the slaying.

Concerning Valdez’ death, another inmate, Joel Olavaria Rivera, wrote in Spanish to the Prisoner Advocacy Coalition that he saw guards bringing Valdez into the Special Management Unit.

“They told him not to do dialysis and forced him to sign a paper saying he didn’t want to go,” he wrote. “He cannot read or write English, and there was no one to translate. He was not able to have dialysis. They forced him to sign his own death.”

At the press conference, Garvey said allegations such as Cookson’s needed to be cleared up for the good of the state.

“The next prisoner who dies under the dark cloud of numerous allegations of mistreatment will be someone else’s father, brother or neighbor,” Garvey said at Wednesday’s press conference. “More important, Maine citizens need to be assured that they are not paying state employees to torture to death a human being.”

About a dozen people stood behind her, carrying handmade signs that said “Human Rights for All,”

“Racism Killed Valdez,” “Medical Neglect = Death” and “Solidarity with all Prisoners,” among other statements.

Another speaker was Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, who serves on the legislative committee for Criminal Justice and Public Safety and who proposed a bill in 2009 to limit prisoner stays in the Special Management Unit. He said that his experience with the Department of Corrections has been mixed.

“As long as the conversation is focused and the ground rules are created by the department, you can have a conversation,” he said. But Schatz said any effort to do fact-finding is discouraged. “It’s a fairly closed shop,” he said.

Lord said Wednesday that she was surprised to hear Schatz’s impressions.

“I don’t know what he wanted or what the committee wanted that they didn’t receive,” she said. “Our policy is to be forthcoming with our oversight committee. It’s important that there’s an element of trust and collegiality. I always thought we had that.”

Also on Wednesday, coalition member David Bidler also read aloud a document that the group calls a criminal indictment, which alleges that the Maine Department of Corrections violated the fundamental human rights of Valdez.

“The indictment charges the defendants with cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment which led to the death of Victor Valdez,” Bidler read. “In addition, the indictment charges the DOC with obstruction of justice in covering up the circumstances of Victor Valdez’s abuse and death.”

After the press conference, the group’s “criminal indictment” was delivered to Gov. John Baldacci’s office, to the Attorney General’s Office and to the Department of Corrections.

David Farmer, Baldacci’s spokesman, accepted it and then gave a brief statement.

“It’s my understanding that the state police and the Attorney General’s Office have looked into the circumstances of this particular death and have no reason to believe there was any wrongdoing,” he said. “Our department is open and transparent. This, I believe, is a case of grandstanding on the unfortunate death of someone.”

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