The few men who could speak Spanish with Valdez had special insight into his plight. Spanish-speaking prisoners help each other navigate the institution's labyrinthine rules because the prison provides little assistance to men who don't speak or read English well. Valdez relied on several inmates to translate for him.

Pabón, another Spanish speaker, wrote to the Phoenix about what he saw as the habitual abuse Valdez suffered: "Mistreatment started when they, the CO [the correctional officers or guards] used to come to get him in the mornings to get him to the hospital for his dialysis. He told me that the CO used to push him all the time. One time he was so mad that he didn't care if he go or not. So they made him or force him to sign the paper saying that he refuse treatment. They grab him by the back of his neck and push his face down against the table. Finally he sign."

Inmate Pedro Santiago wrote to Garvey describing how he attempted to help Valdez write a formal written "grievance" against the guards who took him to dialysis. He reported that Valdez told him, "'This people are going to kill me.'" Santiago never got to finish writing the grievance before Valdez died.

Valdez's death is "convenient for the prison," his friend Pabón wrote with bitterness. "They don't have to take him to the hospital three times a week." (Pabón and Santiago wrote in English; grammatical mistakes made by Pabón and Valdez, as given by Santiago, are rendered as is.)


Talented, but 'a little fighter'

feat_prison_mugshot_main
Victor Valdez's mug shot after his 2008 arrest.

Valdez's family describes him as "Indian" in appearance, with a dark complexion. Even weakened by his sicknesses, he was muscular. But when he entered the Maine State Prison he walked slowly and had the worn look of someone who for a long time had endured serious health problems. His salt-and-pepper hair was thinning, he wore glasses, and he looked far older than his 52 years. His inmate friends, in fact, consistently refer to him as "elderly."

Interviewed by phone from New York, Olga Rivera, who had spent 20 years as his common-law wife, said Valdez was "friendly, helpful, very good-hearted." He was a welder, a carpenter, and an accomplished cook with a green thumb. He was someone who could do anything — "a genius," she called him. He wrote Christian songs. In Portland he attended what is known as the "Spanish" Pentecostal church.

Valdez had come to this country from the Caribbean when he was 18 or 19, leaving a daughter there from a previous relationship. He had no children with Olga. He had gone to Portland to seek work and had been in Maine for 10 years. Olga visited him on vacations from her job as a building manager in Brooklyn.

Valdez also was "short-tempered," she said. Her sister Maria Rivera called him "a little fighter." His fights sometimes landed him in jail in New York. But "I calmed him down," Olga said.

Not enough. In May 2008 he got into a fight with an upstairs Portland neighbor who complained about the loud music from Valdez's apartment. Valdez liked to listen to "romantic songs," Maria Rivera said. The police charged him with striking his neighbor in the head and neck with the flat side of a machete. The victim was only scratched and refused medical treatment.

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