A rare look inside the Maine State Prison’s ‘supermax’

From: The Portland Phoenix
Nov 8th 2013
By Lance Tapley

“An almost-clean version of hell”
 
There was a stain of what looked like blood on the floor of the otherwise shiny-clean, empty Mental Health Unit isolation cell. “It’s Kool-Aid,” said my minder, a deputy warden. He smiled. But, as the saying goes, I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid.

The cell faintly stank of shit. Mentally ill prisoners and those made mentally ill by prolonged solitary confinement are driven to cut themselves and to try to throw their feces at guards.

In one of the Administrative Segregation cellblocks — pure solitary confinement — I heard undulating cries and saw shadowy faces behind the steel doors’ tiny windows.

The Maine State Prison “supermax,” or Special Management Unit, is an ugly place. Are my photos ugly enough? Trying to fit form to content, I used an old film camera and grainy-image-producing 400-speed, black-and-white film shot usually without a flash under fluorescent lights.

There were big limitations. I was not supposed to photograph prisoners, and my tour was rapid. That said, I was, possibly, the first journalist to visit and photograph the supermax — after eight years of writing about it.

Super-harsh supermax (super-maximum-security) prisons and their central feature of solitary confinement became a correctional craze 30 years ago. They became dumping grounds for the mentally ill and others who couldn’t follow prison rules or who simply irritated guards. At least 80,000 human beings are held in them nationwide. Maine opened its supermax in the coastal town of Warren in 1992. Ten years later it built the new state prison around it.

The supermax’s unforgiving conditions are not helpful, to put it mildly, in improving prisoner behavior. The evidence is overwhelming, in fact, that protracted solitary confinement damages or destroys prisoners’ minds. Human-rights groups consider it torture. And it costs taxpayers twice as much as “general population” incarceration.

Advertisements

Maine Reduces Use of Solitary Confinement

From: SolitaryWatch:

July 25, 2011
by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

A new article in The Crime Report describes a “dramatic reduction of solitary confinement” in Maine State Prison. The changes have taken place under the leadership of a new Commissioner of Corrections, Joseph Ponte–and under a Republican governor and state legislature. But as author Lance Tapley points out, the path to reform was paved by a grassroots political movement that last year pressed for legislation to limit the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and jails. While that effort failed, it clearly influenced the subsequent reforms.

Read the rest here.

Top prison officials fired – This Just In – Portland Phoenix

Top prison officials fired – This Just In – Portland Phoenix

By LANCE TAPLEY | June 15, 2011

In a continuing shakeup at the troubled Maine State Prison, new Corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has fired six top officials including its controversial security chief, Deputy Warden James O’Farrell. Prisoners, prison critics, and former employees had long complained that O’Farrell handled both inmates and staff callously.

The mass dismissal on June 10 came after a big security breach, the May 24 beating of inmate Lloyd Franklin Millet in the prison woodshop, allegedly at the hands of another inmate. Millet died on June 7 — the latest in a string of violent or suspicious inmate deaths in recent years.

Commissioner Ponte says the dismissals were made to save money and had “nothing to do” with the employees’ performance. He had long heard criticism, he says, “that there were too many department wardens and captains.” Besides O’Farrell, four guard captains and a training manager at the Warren facility were given pink slips, with two weeks’ notice.

Read the rest here.

Prisoner Rights Advocates Call for Probe Into Beating Death of Maine Inmate

From: MPBN

06/08/2011 Reported By: Tom Porter

An inmate severely beaten at the Maine State Prison in Warren two weeks ago has died. According to the Department of Corrections, 51-year Lloyd Franklin Millett, who was serving time for two murders, died last night at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Maine State Police are investigating, and prisoner advocacy groups are urging state authorities to do everything they can to bring those responsible to justice. They’re also asking for a more thorough investigation of two inmate deaths that occured in 2009.

Read the rest here. Rest in peace.

Maine Cuts Supermax Population, Reforms Solitary Confinement Practices

From SolitaryWatch.com

by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

As Lance Tapley reported last week, recent developments in Maine demonstrate the difference that reform-minded leadership can make to prison conditions, including the use and abuse of solitary confinement. Even as it has grown exponentially over recent decades, the use of solitary has generally been treated not as a human rights issue but as a matter of correctional policy. As a result, tens of thousands of prisoners have been placed in isolation largely at the behest of prison guards and wardens, with the approval of state departments of protections. Now, Maine’s corrections commissioner is instead using his power to reform state policies and procedures in relation to solitary confinement.

“Less than three months into his job,” Tapley writes in the Portland Phoenix, ”Maine’s new corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has begun to dramatically reform the Maine State Prison’s long-troubled solitary-confinement ‘supermax’ unit.” Ponte has thus far cut the unit’s population by more than half, from 132 inmates to 60, and “has ordered that an inmate can’t be placed in the supermax for longer than 72 hours without his personal approval.” Ponte also issued new rules that have stopped “brutal ‘cell extractions’ by guards of uncooperative inmates” (a practice that was widely exposed by Tapley’s reporting and leaked prison videos several years ago). ”Extractions normally end with inmates strapped into a restraint chair. There were 54 extractions in 2010 and 74 in 2009, the Department of Corrections says, and before publicity about them in recent years the annual number was in the hundreds.” The article continues:

Read the rest here.

The Worst of the Worst: Supermax Torture in America

SolitaryWatch published an article mentioning this article:
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2010
By Lance Tapley
Boston Review
For photo and video, please go to the original article.
Mike James, photographed by Lance Tapley.

“They beat the shit out of you,” Mike James said, hunched near the smeared plexiglass separating us. He was talking about the cell “extractions” he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit guards at the Maine State Prison.

“They push you, knee you, poke you,” he said, his voice faint but ardent through the speaker. “They slam your head against the wall and drop you on the floor while you’re cuffed.” He lifted his manacled hands to a scar on his chin. “They split it wide open. They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ when you’re not even moving.”

When you meet Mike James you notice first his deep-set eyes and the many scars on his shaved head, including a deep, horizontal gash. He got that by scraping his head on the cell door slot, which guards use to pass in food trays.

WARNING: This video may disturb some viewers.

This video, leaked to Lance Tapley, shows a cell extraction at the super-maximum security unit of the Maine State Prison in Warren. Each such extraction is videotaped by guards to prove that mistreatment does not occur. The mentally ill prisoner is maced while he is forcibly moved from his cell, denuded, and placed in a restraint chair.

“They were messing with me,” he explained, referring to the guards who taunted him. “I couldn’t stand it no more.” He added, “I’ve knocked myself out by running full force into the wall.”

James, who is in his twenties, has been beaten all his life, first by family members: “I was punched, kicked, slapped, bitten, thrown against the wall.” He began seeing mental-health workers at four and taking psychiatric medication at seven. He said he was bipolar and had many other disorders. When a doctor took him off his meds at age eighteen, he got into “selling drugs, robbing people, fighting, burglaries.” He received a twelve-year sentence for robbery. Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves,” he said. It included periods alone in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James told me was confirmed by other inmates and prison employees.

James’s story illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at Guantánamo. To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons. The Obama administration— somewhat unsteadily—plans to shut down the Guantánamo detention center and ship its inmates to one or more supermaxes in the United States, as though this would mark a substantive change. In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity. Prisoners may be regularly beaten in cell extractions, and they receive meager health services. The isolation frequently leads to insane behavior including self-injury and suicide attempts.

In 2004, state-run supermaxes in 44 states held about 25,000 people, according to Daniel Mears, a Florida State University criminologist who has done the most careful count. Mears told me his number was conservative. In addition the federal system has a big supermax in Colorado, ADX Florence, and a total of about 11,000 inmates in solitary in all its lockups, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Some researchers peg the state and federal supermax total as high as a hundred thousand; their studies sometimes include more broadly defined “control units”—for example, those in which men spend all day in a cell with another prisoner. (Nationally, 91 percent of prison and jail inmates are men, so overwhelmingly men fill the supermaxes. Women also are kept in supermax conditions, but apparently no one has estimated how many.) Then there are the county and city jails, the most sizable of which have large solitary-confinement sections. Although the roughness in what prisoners call “the hole” varies from prison to prison and jail to jail, isolation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.

James experienced frequent cell extractions—on one occasion, five of them in a single day. In this procedure, five hollering guards wearing helmets and body armor charge into the cell. The point man smashes a big shield into the prisoner. The others spray mace into his face, push him onto the bed, and twist his arms behind his back to handcuff him, connecting the cuffs by a chain to leg irons. As they continue to mace him, the guards carry him screaming to an observation room, where they bind him to a special chair. He remains there for hours.

A scene such as this might have taken place at supposedly aberrant Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as described by prisoners and guards and vividly revealed in a leaked video (the Maine prison records these events to ensure that inmates are not mistreated), an extraction is the supermax’s normal, zero-tolerance reaction to prisoner disobedience, which may be as minor as protesting bad food by covering the cell door’s tiny window with a piece of paper. Such extractions occur all the time, not just in Maine but throughout the country. The principle applied is total control of a prisoner’s actions. Even if the inmate has no history of violence, when he leaves the cell he’s in handcuffs and ankle shackles, with a guard on either side.

Despite a judge’s order, officials refused to send Mike James to the hospital, arguing he had to serve his full sentence first.

But he doesn’t often leave the cell. In Maine’s supermax, which is typical, an inmate spends 23 hours a day alone in a 6.5-by-14-foot space. When the weather is good, he’ll spend an hour a day, five days a week, usually alone, in a small dog run outdoors. Radios and TVs are forbidden. Cell lights are on night and day. When the cold food is shoved through the door slot, prisoners fear it is contaminated by the feces, urine, and blood splattered on the cell door and corridor surfaces by the many mentally ill or enraged inmates. The prisoner is not allowed a toothbrush but is provided a plastic nub to use on a fingertip. Mental-health care usually amounts to a five-minute, through-the-steel-door conversation with a social worker once or twice a week. The prisoner gets a shower a few times a week, a brief telephone call every week or two, and occasional “no-contact” access to a visitor. Variations in these conditions exist: for example, in some states TVs or radios are allowed.

When supermaxes were built across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, they were theoretically for “the worst of the worst,” the most violent prisoners. But an inmate may be put in one for possession of contraband such as marijuana, if accused by another inmate of being a gang member, for hesitating to follow a guard’s order, and even for protection from other inmates. Several prisoners are in the Maine supermax because they got themselves tattooed. By many accounts mental illness is the most common denominator; mentally ill inmates have a hard time following prison rules. A Wisconsin study found that three-quarters of the prisoners in one solitary-confinement unit were mentally ill. In Maine, over half of supermax inmates are classified as having a serious mental illness.

Prison officials have extraordinary discretion in extending the stay of supermax inmates. Their decisions hit the mentally ill the hardest. Administrators can add time as a disciplinary measure, and often they will charge prisoners with criminal offenses that can add years to their sentences.

In 2007 James was tried on ten assault charges for biting and kicking guards and throwing feces at them. Most were felony charges, and if convicted he could have served decades more in prison. Inmates almost never beat such charges, but James’s court-appointed lawyer, Joseph Steinberger, a scrappy ex-New Yorker, succeeded with a defense rare in cases of Maine prisoners accused of crimes: he convinced a jury in Rockland, the nearby county seat, to find James “not criminally responsible” by reason of insanity. Steinberger thought the verdict was a landmark because it called into question the state’s standard practice of keeping mentally ill individuals in isolation and then punishing them with yet more isolation when their conditions worsen. After the verdict, as the law required, the judge committed James to a state mental hospital.

But prison officials and the state attorney general’s office saw the verdict as another kind of landmark: never before in Maine had a convict been committed to the mental hospital after being tried for assault on guards. In the view of the corrections establishment, James would be escaping his deserved punishment, and this would send the wrong signal to prisoners. Officials refused to send him to the hospital, arguing he first had to serve the remaining nine years of his sentence.

Steinberger wrote to Maine’s governor—John Baldacci, a Democrat—begging him to intervene and send James to the hospital:

He continually slits open his arms and legs with chips of paint and concrete, smears himself and his cell with feces, strangles himself to unconsciousness with his clothing. . . . He also bites, hits, kicks, spits at, and throws urine and feces on his guards.

This behavior was never in dispute, but the governor declined to intervene.

After a year of court battles, Steinberger finally succeeded in getting James into the hospital, though the judge conceded to the Department of Corrections that his time there would not count against his sentence. So James faces nine years in prison after however long it takes to bring him to a sane mental state.

Can supermax treatment legitimately be called torture? The most widely accepted legal definition of torture is in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment—a treaty to which the United States is party, and is therefore U.S. law. In this definition, torture is treatment that causes “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” when it is inflicted by officials for purposes of punishment or coercion.

Severe pain and suffering as punishment are plainly the norm in supermaxes, and prison officials use isolation to coerce inmates into ratting on each other or confessing to crimes committed in prison. (A Maine prisoner told me about a deputy warden who threw him in the most brutal cellblock of the supermax and repeatedly interrogated him about an escape plot, which he denied any knowledge of.) Even in the careful words of diplomacy, and even when only mental suffering is considered, supermax conditions, especially solitary confinement of American prisoners for extended periods, have increasingly been described by UN agencies and non-governmental human rights organizations as cruel, inhuman, degrading, verging on torture, or outright torture. In 2008 the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, recommended that solitary confinement “be kept to a minimum, used in very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible, and only as a last resort”—limits that U.S. supermaxes violate in the course of normal operation. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which has been active in opposing abuses at Guantánamo, recently began describing supermax conditions as torture. And American judges have recognized solitary confinement of the mentally ill as equivalent to torture. A key case is the 1995 federal court ruling in Madrid v. Gomez that forbade keeping mentally ill prisoners in the notorious Security Housing Unit of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

This American system of administrative punishment has no counterpart in scale or severity.

Solitary confinement is by far the worst torture in the supermax. Human minds fare poorly in isolation, which “often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before,” Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and authority on solitary confinement, writes in a brief for the Madrid case. Grassian believes supermaxes produce a syndrome characterized by “agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.” He also notes memory lapses, “primitive aggressive fantasies,” paranoia, and hallucinations.

Grassian’s is the consensus view among scholars concerned with solitary confinement. Peter Scharff Smith of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, who has surveyed in depth the literature concerning solitary confinement, writes, “Research on effects of solitary confinement has produced a massive body of data documenting serious adverse health effects.” Those effects may start within a few days, involve as many as three-quarters of supermax inmates, and often become permanent. Another expert on supermax confinement, psychiatrist Terry Kupers, writes, “being held in isolated confinement for longer than three months causes lasting emotional damage if not full-blown psychosis and functional disability.”

Video still of a cell extraction in progress.

The throwing of feces, urine, and blood at guards; self-injury; and suicide attempts are common. A 2009 investigation of Illinois’s Tamms supermax by the Belleville News-Democrat depicted Faygie Fields, a schizophrenic imprisoned for killing a man in a drug deal. Fields regularly cut his arms and throat with glass and metal, swallowed glass, and smeared feces all over his cell. The prison reaction to this kind of behavior was predictable:

Prison officials charged him $5.30 for tearing up a state-owned sheet to make a noose to kill himself. . . . If he hadn’t been charged with crimes in prison, Fields could have been paroled in 2004 after serving 20 years of a 40-year sentence. But Fields must serve all the extra time for throwing food, urine and committing other offenses against guards. That amounts to 34 years, or 54 years total, that he must serve before becoming eligible for parole in 2038, at age 79.

This American system of administrative punishment—except in extremely rare cases, prison staff, not judges, decide who goes into the hole—has no counterpart in scale or severity. There are solitary-confinement cells in other countries’ prisons and the odd, small supermax, such as the Vught prison in the Netherlands, but they are few. When Corey Weinstein, a San Francisco physician, toured prisons in the United Kingdom in 2004 on behalf of the American Public Health Association, he was shown “eight of the forty men out of 75,000 [in England and Wales] considered too dangerous or disruptive to be in any other facility.” Seven of the eight

were out of their cells at exercise or at a computer or with a counselor or teacher. . . . With embarrassment the host took us to the one cell holding the single individual who had to be continuously locked down.

The British and other Europeans did use solitary confinement starting in the mid-nineteenth century, taking as models the American penitentiaries that had invented mass isolation in the 1820s. But Europe largely gave it up later in the century because, rather than becoming penitent, prisoners went insane. A shocked Charles Dickens, after visiting a Pennsylvania prison in 1842, called solitary confinement “immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” Americans gave it up, too, in the late 1800s, only to resurrect it a century later.

Officially called the Special Management Unit or SMU, Maine’s supermax opened in 1992, hidden in the woods of the pretty coastal village of Warren. Ten years later the new, maximum-security Maine State Prison was built around it. Literally and metaphorically, the supermax’s 132 cells are the core of the stark, low, 925-inmate complex with its radiating “pods.” Maine’s crime and incarceration rates are among the lowest in the country, but its supermax is as brutal as any. After allegations of beatings by guards and of deliberately withheld medical care, the state police are currently investigating two inmate deaths in the SMU. Grassian has told a legislative committee that Maine’s supermax treats its inmates worse than its peers in many states.

Still, supermaxes are more alike than different. As America’s prisoner population exploded—the U.S. incarceration rate now is nearly four times what it was in 1980, more than five times the world average, and the highest in the world—overcrowding tossed urban state prisons into turmoil. The federal system provided a model for dealing with the tumult: in 1983 mayhem in the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, resulted in a permanent lockdown and, effectively, the first supermax. “No evidence exists that states undertook any rigorous assessment of need,” Mears, the Florida State criminologist, writes of supermax proliferation, but the states still decided they would segregate whomever they deemed the most troublesome inmates. Maine’s supermax is a case in point, constructed in the absence of prisoner unrest. George Keiser, a veteran prisons official who works for the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections, puts it bluntly: supermaxes became “a fad.”

An expensive fad. American supermax buildings are so high-tech and the management of their prisoners is so labor-intensive that the facilities “typically are two to three times more costly to build and operate than other types of prisons,” Mears writes. Yet, according to Keiser, tax money poured into supermax construction because these harsh prisons were “the animal of public-policy makers.” The beast was fed by politicians capitalizing on public fears of crime incited by increasing news-media sensationalism.

‘This place breeds hate,’ one inmate said, ‘What they’re doing obviously isn’t working.’

There was no significant opposition to the supermaxes, even when it became clear that the mentally ill would be housed there. Legislatively mandated deinstitutionalization meant patients were thrown onto the streets without enough community care, and eventually many wound up in jails and prisons. Also, “for a time,” Keiser said, “there was a thought that nothing worked” to rehabilitate prisoners. With conservative scholars such as James Q. Wilson leading the way in the 1970s, “corrections” was essentially abandoned.

The supermax experiment has not been a success.

Norman Kehling—small, balding, middle-aged—is serving 40 years in the Maine State Prison for an arson in which, he told me, no one was hurt. When I interviewed him, he was in the supermax for trafficking heroin within the prison. I asked him about the mentally ill men there. “One guy cut his testicle out of his sack,” he reported, shaking his head. “They shouldn’t be here.” He added, “This place breeds hate. What they’re doing obviously isn’t working.”

Wardens continue to justify supermaxes by claiming they decrease prison violence, but a study published in The Prison Journal in 2008 finds “no empirical evidence to support the notion that supermax prisons are effective” in meeting this goal. And when enraged and mentally damaged inmates rejoin the general prison population or the outside world, as the vast majority do, the result, according to psychiatrist Kupers, is “a new population of prisoners who, on account of lengthy stints in isolation units, are not well prepared to return to a social milieu.” In the worst cases, supermax alumni—frequently released from solitary confinement directly onto the street—“may be time bombs waiting to explode,” criminologist Hans Toch writes.

The bombs are already going off. In July of 2007 Michael Woodbury, then 31, walked into a New Hampshire store and, in a botched robbery, shot and killed three men. He had just completed a five-year stint at the Maine State Prison for robbery and theft and had done much of his time in the supermax. When he was being taken to court he told reporters, “I reached out and told them I need medication. I reached out and told them I shouldn’t be out in society. I told numerous cops, numerous guards.” While in prison, he said, he had given a four-page “manifesto” to a prison mental-health worker saying he “was going to crack like this.” Woodbury pleaded guilty and received a life sentence. Unsurprisingly, a Washington state study shows a high degree of recidivism among inmates released directly to the community from the supermax.

Summing up the major pragamatic arguments, Sharon Shalev of the London School of Economics and author of a recent prizewinning book, Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement, says, “Supermax prisons are expensive, ineffective, and they drive people mad.”

So what can be done?

Legally, solitary confinement is not likely to be considered torture anytime soon. According to legal scholar Jules Lobel, when the Senate ratified the Convention Against Torture, it qualified its approval so much that under the U.S. interpretation “the placement of even mentally ill prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement would not constitute torture even if the mental pain caused thereby drove the prisoner to commit suicide.” And despite the Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” courts have refused to see supermax confinement per se as unconstitutional. Lawsuits on behalf of the mentally ill have had more success. In New York a suit brought about the creation of a residential mental-health unit for prisoners, with another on the way, plus more time out of the cell for the mentally ill. Still, fifteen years after Madrid v. Gomez, court-ordered reform has been infrequent and its implementation contested.

Read the rest here.

This article is adapted from The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse, forthcoming from New York University Press, and based on five years of reporting for the Portland Phoenix.

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.”