Prison advocates dispute findings in inmate death

By Abigail Curtis
Bangor Daily News

WARREN, Maine — After a months-long investigation, the Maine Attorney General’s Office has determined the death of prisoner Victor Valdez, 52, at Maine State Prison last November was not a homicide.
But Judy Garvey, a spokeswoman for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said Thursday that she and other members dispute the office’s conclusion and will demand further investigation into Valdez’s death.
“We just want transparency,” she said. “We’d like to know what was in the investigation. Just because someone’s incarcerated and dies doesn’t mean the public shouldn’t know what has taken place. We should want that in Maine. There shouldn’t be anything we would want to hide.”

Valdez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was serving a four-year sentence for assault, apparently died in a medical unit at the prison after suffering what other prisoners described as systematic abuse by guards, according to Garvey.

He also had kidney disease and required dialysis treatments three days a week.

Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said Thursday the investigation found no evidence to suggest Valdez was the victim of foul play.

“Mr. Valdez had an extensive medical history and Mr. Valdez’s death was a natural death brought on by serious medical conditions from which he suffered,” Stokes said in a brief statement.

The incident that Garvey believes led to Valdez’s death occurred on Nov. 19, 2009, and took place in the prison dayroom. According to letters she received from other prisoners who were witnesses, Valdez had been heating a microwave dinner and walking around when there was an “off-hook,” or temporary lockdown.
Prisoners wrote the coalition that a guard told Valdez to go to his cell, but the Spanish-speaking man may not have heard it, Garvey said.

“He wasn’t trying to stand up to the guards. He was very afraid of them,” she said. “They did grab him, and a couple of guards were on either side of him, dragging him along, his little body dragging between them.”
Prisoners wrote the coalition after the incident that Valdez’s dialysis tubes were ripped out, that there was blood “all around,” that he had been taken to solitary confinement and that he needed urgent help. They also said guards used pepper spray on Valdez and that he couldn’t breathe.

Garvey also complained Thursday that an autopsy had not been conducted because the body was cremated shortly after Valdez’s death. Corrections officials reported that cremation was the least expensive option available to the family.

Denise Lord, assistant commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said Thursday evening that the department turned over its information on Valdez’s death to the Attorney General’s Office because corrections officials were looking for an independent review of the circumstances surrounding his death.
“The reason that they conducted this review was to respond to the concerns that were raised by a number of people, including the prisoner advocacy coalition,” she said. “We’ve been eager for them to finalize their review, because we wanted to resolve the controversy. I just have to accept that they did a thorough job and that their conclusion is well-founded.”

Lord said Valdez died of medical causes in the hospital, but that she is unable to release specifics about the death because that information is confidential.

She said she understands the frustration of Garvey and others.

“I know people ask for transparency and when they don’t get the information they want, they think it’s being withheld for questionable reasons,” she said. “I understand that when you have a concern and you believe you’re going up against an organization that appears to be unforthcoming – those are the perceptions – that you believe it’s being withheld for nefarious reasons. But really, it’s the law.”

Prisoners in contact with Garvey and the coalition have written that they are glad the Attorney General’s Office had taken their concerns seriously enough to launch an investigation, Garvey said.

“Their human rights were considered enough that the state police went in there apparently three to four times, interviewing different witnesses,” Garvey said. “It’s highly suspicious. This guy wasn’t dying a week before.”
Other prisoners liked Valdez, whom they described as frail and “elderly,” perhaps because he was hard of hearing, was stooped-over and received dialysis, she said.

“He wasn’t really causing trouble to anyone in there. He was kind of one of the quiet guys,” Garvey said. “They took him somewhere to die, and that’s how he spent his last days. He didn’t deserve that.”