There will be no charges brought against prison officials in the suspicious death last year of an inmate in solitary confinement at Maine State Prison’s supermax unit, the state Attorney General’s office announced last week. We are reprinting here the better part of an article on the subject from the Portland Phoenix by Lance Tapley, who is known for his exposés of abuses in the supermax unit, and who reported earlier this year on the death of Victor Valdez. Maine has an active grassroots movement challenging prison conditions in general and solitary confinement in particular, and prisoner advocates say they will not let the decision rest.
Critics of the state’s prison system will press for an independent investigation after expressing dismay with the attorney general’s long-delayed conclusion October 28 that Maine State Prison inmate Victor Valdez died last November from “a natural death.” Prisoners had reported Valdez suffered beatings from guards and withheld medical care.
Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said he found “no evidence” that foul play occurred, suggesting instead Valdez’s death was “brought about by some very serious medical conditions.” A 52-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic serving a four-year sentence for assault, Valdez had heart and lung problems and his kidneys had failed.
Stokes released only a brief statement with his conclusion, which was based on a state police investigation. The Phoenix requested an interview with him, but he responded that he had “never given an interview to explain why there is no evidence of a homicide.”
David Bidler, of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (M-PAC), decried the “lack of transparency” involving the state’s investigation. His group will meet to discuss what kind of probe it will request, but one possibility is a federal civil-rights investigation. And M-PAC is considering filing Freedom of Access Act requests for government documents related to Valdez’s death. The law allows investigative records to be released under certain conditions.
Stokes said, however, that “the medical records piece of this investigation is the bulk of it, consisting of at least a four-inch-thick stack of documents.” Medical records are generally excluded from having to be produced in response to Freedom of Access requests.
The state police investigation was launched after demands by the prisoner advocates, who had received letters from inmates describing physical abuse of Valdez. Some claimed guards forced him to sign documents refusing kidney dialysis treatments, which he needed three times a week at the Damariscotta hospital.
Soon after Valdez had been taken by guards to the prison solitary-confinement Special Management Unit or supermax on November 19, 2009, for disobeying orders, a prisoner had written Judy Garvey, another M-PAC member, that Valdez’s life was in danger. She immediately notified authorities, but Valdez died on November 27.
No autopsy was performed, and his body was quickly cremated. The Corrections Department also has refused to release details about Valdez’s treatment and death, citing the confidentiality of medical records.
For commentary on this story, see this recent piece by former Maine State Prison chaplain Stan Moody, who concludes:
The practice of handling every crisis internally from within the Department of Correctionswith no outside verification has to stop. Maine State Prison has for far too long enjoyed a history ofcreating its own reality and ignoring the right of the public to know what is going on in there on thegrounds that its task is beyond public understanding. This fortress mentality only leads to furtherconflict with the rights of the people in their charge…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 tomanage. 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. Prison administration is committed to keeping it that way. Absent a medical examiner’s report, there is evidence only that Valdez died–an urn of ashes now buried in a prison plot.