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PLN editor Paul Wright quoted in MA article re cover-ups by prison officials

The Phoenix, Jan. 1, 2009.
PLN editor Paul Wright quoted in MA article re cover-ups by prison officials - The Phoenix 2009

A mysterious new inmate death

Prison Scandal Watch

By LANCE TAPLEY | December 10, 2009

The Phoenix (Mass.)

Despite a scandal earlier this year over a prisoner death, state corrections officials won’t allow the Phoenix to interview a Maine State Prison inmate who has claimed in letters that prison staff abused an ailing prisoner, Victor Valdez, before Valdez died in late November.

Jeff Cookson had sent a letter a week before Valdez’s death to prison-issues activist Judy Garvey of Blue Hill expressing fears for Valdez’s life. He alleged that staff “ripped out” his kidney-dialysis tubes — “and he bled all over the place” — to take him to solitary confinement in the Supermax unit because he had supposedly broken a prison rule.

Deputy Corrections Commissioner Denise Lord said Valdez, 52, died of “medical causes in the hospital,” according to the Bangor Daily News’s paraphrase of her remarks. Lord refused to give more information, citing medical confidentiality restrictions, and said no investigation of the death would take place. She said her department “took the appropriate level of action” concerning the death, as the News described her comments.

Lord wouldn’t tell the Phoenix why the department forbade Cookson, a convicted murderer, to be interviewed except to suggest in an e-mail that prisoners weren’t allowed to comment on the treatment of other prisoners. In the past the department has intermittently claimed confidentiality rules give state officials the power to prevent inmates from discussing other inmates, despite a longstanding federal-court consent decree in which Corrections agreed to allow inmates free access to the news media.

When Cookson sent Garvey a second letter, this one reporting Valdez’s death, he said there were “15-20 inmates who would like to be Victor’s voice and tell about the abuse we witnessed.” He added that if a medical examiner looked at the body, “I believe that it will show physical abuse that contributed to his death.”

As soon as Garvey, a member of the Maine Coalition Against the Abuse of Solitary Confinement, received Cookson’s first letter she e-mailed various officials with his information. After she learned that Valdez was dead, she e-mailed her concerns to Attorney General Janet Mills — who oversees the state medical examiner’s office — and Governor John Baldacci, but received no reply from either. Lord told her that the concerns about Valdez were unfounded.

Valdez, a native of the Dominican Republic who was also known as Valdez-Ramos, was serving a four-year sentence for assaulting a man in Portland with a machete. It’s possible Valdez died solely from natural causes. Court sentencing records filed early this year state that, besides kidney failure, he suffered from congestive heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver, and had lung problems. His attorney, Randall Bates, wrote that his medical care had “already strained jail resources to the maximum.”

Paul Wright, editor of the national monthly Prison Legal News, commented in an e-mail that it’s “quite common for prisons to cover up and restrict the info on prisoner beatings, deaths, etc., and it generally works quite well. . . . The use of laws on medical privacy to cover up wrongdoing is also fairly widespread.”

The prison’s many recent instances of turmoil include an April murder, apparently by inmates, of sex-offender prisoner Sheldon Weinstein. The fallout so far includes the firing of a guard and a $1-million federal wrongful-death lawsuit by Weinstein’s widow. This summer Warden Jeffrey Merrill was demoted. A new warden, Patricia Barnhart, from Michigan, began work December 1.

Given the Warren prison’s troubles, Maine Civil Liberties Union executive director Shenna Bellows thought that Corrections should be as open as possible about events at the prison. Her group is a part of the anti-solitary-confinement-abuse coalition, and she said in an interview that the bill to restrict Supermax isolation, to be considered in the legislative session beginning in January, provides an opportunity for the department to have “constructive conversations” with the coalition with the object of prison improvements.