AUGUSTA, Maine — In the wake of two high-profile deaths at Maine State Prison, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require the state medical examiner to assess whether an autopsy is needed for a prison inmate who dies in custody.
But Maine’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Margaret Greenwald, said that is already standard protocol in her office. A Department of Corrections official, meanwhile, said she would support going even further than the bill in the interest of transparency.
“I would support the medical examiner conducting an autopsy in the case of every prisoner death,” said Denise Lord, associate commissioner at the corrections department.
The bill, LD 168, states that anytime a “client” in state custody dies, the medical examiner “shall review the case file, relevant medical records and the body” to determine whether an autopsy is warranted. An autopsy also would be performed if requested by next of kin, who would be responsible for paying for the procedure.
Sponsor Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, said his bill would protect both the public interest and prison workers through transparency.
“All that can be asked is that the death of a prisoner be treated like the death of any other person in Maine,” Kumiega told members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
The proposal follows two prisoner deaths in 2009 that garnered widespread attention.
Victor Valdez was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who died in November 2009 while an inmate at Maine State Prison in Warren.
A lengthy investigation by the Maine Attorney General’s Office determined that Valdez, who suffered from kidney failure and other serious medical problems, died of natural causes. But a number of prisoners reported seeing guards severely beat Valdez and then deny him medical care.
An autopsy was not done before Valdez’s body was cremated, although the case was reviewed by the medical examiner’s office.
Earlier that year, Sheldon Weinstein died several days after the man, who used a wheelchair, apparently was beaten severely by other Maine State Prison inmates. An autopsy was performed in that case, but Weinstein’s widow has filed suit claiming that prison employees failed to provide proper medical care for the convicted sex offender and looked the other way when inmates beat him.
Testifying in support of LD 168, Judy Garvey with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said there was something “dreadfully, dreadfully wrong” with the way the state handled Valdez’s death.
After hearing about the alleged beating by guards before Valdez died, Garvey said she contacted the department, Gov. John Baldacci and others urging them to look after the inmate.
But he died eight days later, and Garvey said his family, who do not speak English, agreed to the cremation without knowing the details leading up to his death.
“The attorney general said Mr. Valdez died of natural causes but the body was destroyed. Nobody looked at the body,” Garvey said. “This bill is intended to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
Dr. Dmitry Opolinsky, a kidney specialist, told the committee he had once expended “a tremendous amount of energy” ensuring a patient incarcerated at Maine State Prison received proper medical care. He has heard similar tales from other medical professionals.
While Opolinsky did not treat Valdez, he expressed concerns about Valdez’s care based on what he has read about the case and the problems he and other physicians have encountered with prisons and jails.
“Unless the state provides us with a detailed report about how his medical treatment in the prison was carried out, I will forever be suspicious,” Opolinsky said.
Lord said one of her greatest job frustrations is the fact that she and other department employees are legally prohibited from publicly sharing information about those cases. Lord assured the committee that the department has strict procedures for handling inmate deaths.
Both the state police and the medical examiner are contacted immediately after an inmate dies. If the death is suspicious, the scene is secured and an investigation begins.
If an inmate dies outside of the prison — as was the case with Valdez, who had been taken to a hospital shortly before his death — the attending physician is obligated to report any concerns. That report is forwarded to the medical examiner, she said.
Additionally, the prison investigates complaints against prison personnel and, when appropriate, takes punitive action. Whether criminal charges are filed is up to the attorney general, however.
“We really have good standards and we try to the best of our abilities to meet those standards,” Lord said.