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A SUSPICIOUS (AND LONELY) DEATH IN MAINE STATE PRISON’S LOCKDOWN UNIT

Stan Moody:

There is a widow in upstate NY who reels from a double-whammy of a brilliant, successful husband who confessed to a sexual assault and the memory of his ashes arriving 6 months later from Maine State Prison (MSP) with the notice that he had died of “natural causes.”  Then another whammy – finding out after she had buried him that it was a homicide and that prison officials had known as much within minutes of his death – officially, within 2 days.


I have a picture in my mind of the Maine Attorney General’s Office vainly searching for a good option to prosecute somebody – anybody – for this death to avoid smearing the prison system.  Weinstein died alone in his solitary-confinement cell of a ruptured spleen presumed to have been caused by an inmate assault 4 days earlier but not picked up in examination by the prison medical center. Justice is slow and nearly blind, but it gets slower and blinder when a state agency is implicated. Approximately 2 years later, another prisoner was sentenced in a plea deal to an additional 9 months incarceration for Weinstein’s death due to lack of evidence.


The story:


It was Friday, April 24, 2009.  I was finishing my rounds as Chaplain at the Special Management Unit (Supermax) when I came to the end of the dreaded B1 corridor, looked in, and saw Sheldon Weinstein sitting on his wheelchair with his legs across his bunk, 10 feet away.  He smiled when he saw me and joked about how old men like him and me were targets in prison.  I saw his hugely black eye and asked him if he had other injuries.  He pointed to his stomach.  He then asked me if I could help get him some toilet paper.  He had been using his pillow case, but since he had no pillow, it didn’t matter anyway, I suppose. As for the black eye, the sergeant who transferred him to solitary the day before his death later told me that he recalled no black eye.


I spent probably 10 minutes talking/shouting with Sheldon through a steel cell door.  I then left and asked a guard on duty to see that he got some toilet paper.


I came in the next morning and was told that Weinstein was found dead at around 6:00 pm that evening.  His posture had been reversed.  He was lying across his bunk, with his feet in his wheelchair.  He had yellow complexion, suggesting liver or spleen involvement, his stomach was distended, and rigor mortis had begun to set in, indicating that he probably had died within an hour or two after I left.


“One less mouth to feed!”:


The cause of death was a ruptured spleen, confirmed by autopsy within 2 days.  Almost universally, the reaction of captains, guards, sergeants, and inmates was, “Good riddance!”  “One less mouth to feed!”  One prisoner, a regular at the Saturday Christian service, however, had taken it upon himself, when Weinstein was in general population recovering from a previous assault, to wheel him to the chow hall to prevent him from being spit on.


When they found him, Weinstein did have toilet paper, I was quickly informed. Adding intrigue to the situation, the guard whom I asked to provide toilet paper was placed on Administrative Leave almost immediately – no explanation.  The sergeant who was on duty in the housing unit where Weinstein was assaulted was fired a short time thereafter. Others disappeared.


Time to step up transparency in prison life:


The death of Sheldon Weinstein changed my life remarkably.  While both prisoners and guards could not seem to get beyond the crime for which he was convicted, I was confronted with a real-life situation from which I could not in good conscience walk away.  It has cost me dearly in terms of political stature and will, I presume, continue to do so.  It has opened my eyes to examine more critically the assumption that nearly all people in government, at the end of the day, are good people who really want to do the right thing.  While many are, I have seen a level of contradiction in that premise that suggests that transparency in government services needs to be stepped up.


Sheldon Weinstein: brilliant; Jewish; convicted sex offender; dead from abuse within 6 months of incarceration with a rousing round of applause from all too many bystanders. I had gotten to know him and had come to like him very much. Yet, truth be known, “Shelly, we hardly knew ye!”

 

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