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 (see "A Prison Obituary: The Tragedy of Victor Valdez," by Lance Tapley, July 30).
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.
PRISON SERIES HONORED AGAIN
A note from the Portland Phoenix editor Jeff Inglis
ThePortland Phoenix’s ongoing series by Lance Tapley, investigating conditions at the Maine State Prison, has won a Publick Occurrences Award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association, for “outstanding journalism.” This is the latest major award for the five-years-and-counting series, which has previously earned national, regional, and statewide honors.