The widow of Sheldon Weinstein, the Maine State Prison inmate who died in April several days after allegedly being beaten by inmates, has taken the first step toward filing a wrongful-death lawsuit against prison guards, Department of Corrections “policy-making personnel,” and prison medical-care providers.
“The guards knew Sheldon was being beaten while it was going on and they looked the other way,” Janet Weinstein’s lawyer, Scott Gardner, of Biddeford, said in a telephone interview. In addition, he said, “the medical staff did nothing in the face of obvious injury.”
In Gardner’s legal notice last month informing state officials about the impending suit, the allegations about inadequate medical treatment echo an account of Sheldon Weinstein’s last days by Sean Higgins, a Portland man in his mid-20s doing time at the Warren prison for robbery. In a letter to the Phoenix he identified himself as a suspect in Weinstein’s death.
Three employees were put on paid leave during the prison’s investigation of personnel actions in connection with the death, officials announced several months ago, but the completed investigation’s results have not been made public, though the Phoenix has asked for them under the state’s Freedom of Access (freedom of information) law.
The “notice of claim” served on officials on behalf of Weinstein’s widow, who lives in upstate New York, says Corrections personnel engaged in “grossly negligent” or “deliberately indifferent” conduct that was responsible for Weinstein’s death. The employees failed to protect him, the document says, from the “terrifying system of vigilante justice which is practiced openly at the prison.”
Weinstein was serving two years for sexual abuse of a young girl, a relative, in Berwick. Sex offenders are often at great risk in prison from attacks by violent inmates.
The document also says the prison failed to provide Weinstein with proper medical care despite “pleas for help” from the 64-year-old, wheelchair-bound diabetic who suffered “massive internal bleeding” from the beating. The suit will ask for “in excess of $1 million” in damages.
The victim moved around the prison “with a noticeable black eye for four days” after the beating, Higgins, the suspect, said. “In those four days Weinstein had been in and out of the medical department two times a day for his blood sugar testing, without being seen for any other injuries while clearly he had them.”
Then, Higgins claimed, when Weinstein was placed in Supermax solitary confinement to wait for an open cell in the protective custody unit, he was once again “denied any type of help from the medical staff.” Weinstein died on April 24, soon after being put in the Supermax. Other prisoners in the 100-man Supermax — officially known as the Special Management Unit — have told the Phoenix that Weinstein was not given proper medical treatment in spite of his appeals for help.
Higgins said he had been put in the Supermax as a suspect along with three other prisoners, but that two of them have now been “cleared” and are back in the prison’s general population.
The head criminal prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office, William Stokes, said in an e-mail the Weinstein investigation remains open, but wouldn’t comment further. Attorney General Janet Mills said in an e-mail that she would have no comment on the threatened lawsuit.
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