Miami Correctional Facility inmate Angel Oquendo’s death was ruled a homicide. Indiana prison officials know what happened to the 24-year-old Puerto Rican. And yet no one has been charged with a crime. There is no shortage of questions concerning Oquendo’s death. What happened to Oquendo? How did he die? What measures are being taken to ensure a similar death does not occur? Why is no one being charged? How much of his death was due to prison policies?
“ There was no call for that kind of restraint ” —Inmate Ray Bennett
Dec. 4, 2002Letter from Charles W. Adams, serving a life sentence for murderA man died here today because a correctional sergeant improperly made a medical determination and told a nurse “We’ll handle this,” before he and officers overpowered a convulsing prisoner, handcuffed him behind the back, threw his coat over his head, slung him between them for a 150-yard walk to Seg, and dropped him on the floor there. … The young man, Oquendo, begged for medical assistance and he died because it was decided he was faking.
Angel Oquendo’s last day
Angel Luis Oquendo was put on probation by Marion County Superior Court on July 28, 2000, when he was 22. He pled guilty to two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor. He violated his probation and returned to his home state of New York, where he was arrested on Jan. 3, 2001. The Bronx native admitted the violation at a probation hearing on May 30, 2001. His probation was revoked and he was sentenced to five years in prison. He was fined $125 for court costs and given 148 days credit. Oquendo was a small man — 5-foot-3 and 136 pounds — and he had many health problems. According to then-Miami Valley Superintendent Stan Knight, the right side of Oquendo’s heart was enlarged. He had lung damage from what Knight described as “years of heavy smoking.” He was diabetic and often suffered from low blood sugar. He had reactive airway disease, a condition similar to asthma. He had atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, a condition that causes plaque to build up in the arteries. The death certificate notes that these conditions contributed to his death. The immediate cause of death, however, is listed as “positional asphyxia [suffocation] during restraint.” How was he restrained and why? How did his conditions contribute to his death? The answers are in the Department of Correction Internal Affairs investigation report. In addition, four inmate witnesses spoke to NUVO and one corresponded with NUVO. None of them knew Oquendo personally. On Dec. 4, 2002, at approximately 12:40 p.m., Oquendo went to the Offender Services Building. He requested medical treatment, but his request was denied. According to Department of Correction spokesperson Pam Pattison, Oquendo had “a number of medical concerns,” but did not always follow the proper protocol for seeking treatment. Knight agreed. “It appeared to be a habit of his to present himself to medical,” he said. Oquendo had been examined that morning, according to Knight. When he reported again, staff thought it was a non-emergency situation. Treatment was denied. According to the report, a corrections officer started to escort him to P Unit, where Oquendo lived. When they were in front of the chow hall, Oquendo walked onto the grass and fell. Inmate Philip Sadler Jr. was in the commissary at the time. A fellow inmate told him Oquendo was going to pass out. Oquendo staggered and fell. Sadler and the officer realized Oquendo was bleeding from the mouth. “There was blood everywhere because he bit his tongue,” Sadler said. “He was having a seizure.” Sadler went to help Oquendo, but guards told him to stay back. Sadler turned Oquendo onto his side anyway. Bingle radioed a “signal 3000,” medical emergency. Three sergeants and two nurses responded. According to the DOC’s investigation report, Oquendo stood up but refused to follow officers’ instructions. Oquendo was then taken to the ground. During the struggle, Oquendo was subdued with pepper spray and handcuffed. Inmate Ray Bennett was in the prison yard. “Man was having a seizure,” he said. “They just used force on him. … There was no call for that kind of restraint.” Bennett said he walked away because he didn’t want to get involved. “I don’t want to wind up like that dude,” he said. “These people is inhuman … I been in just about every place in Indiana, but none of ’em was a hole like this.” Inmate Edward Richardson, serving 50 years for murder, saw the incident from his dorm window. “Oquendo was stumbling backwards, falling to the ground,” he said. “[Guards] waved the medical staff away.” Knight said the guards did not know something was wrong. “There was no indication of a medical problem,” he said. “We did not know at that time that he was in distress.” Pattison said DOC policy dictates an offender who is bleeding or who has been subdued with pepper spray is taken to the prison infirmary. However, the officers took Oquendo to the Segregation Unit.
Knight said Oquendo was combative. He stood, fell and tried to move away. He was able to walk part of the way to the Segregation Unit, but he was carried most of the way. Pattison said four or six guards carried him horizontally, with his head lower than his chest. Knight said his feet were higher than his head, and that sometimes Oquendo had his head up and sometimes down. Apparently, this prevented his rib cage and diaphragm from working together, causing him to stop breathing. According to detective Mike Tarrh of the Indiana State Police, Oquendo was “put down” twice so the guards could rest. “It was a pretty good distance,” he said. Inmates, however, dispute that version. “They didn’t set him down, they dropped him,” Richardson said. “From what I seen from the window, Oquendo wasn’t putting up a fight.” Inmate Jim Daher, serving 40 years for murder, accused the guards of brutality. “He was basically hogtied,” Daher said. He witnessed the incident from his dorm window and said “50 or 60” inmates in the yard also witnessed it. Daher said one of the guards, whom he described as a “300-pounder,” dropped Oquendo and hit the inmate in the head with his knee. “They watch too many episodes of Cops,” Daher said. Pattison denied that Oquendo was dropped. “There was a struggle that may have caused him to fall,” she said. Knight said the video of the incident was unclear. “It looked like he tripped,” he said. The officer fell along with Oquendo. Knight said that while some inmates alleged the guards had beaten Oquendo, there was no evidence in the prison’s videos to prove that. “When you see the video, it’s not there,” he said. However, the DOC has refused NUVO’s request to view the video, citing security concerns. NUVO has filed suit under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act, seeking to view the video (see sidebar). Daher said Oquendo looked “like a sack of apples” when he was set down. “Live people bounce,” he said. “Dead people don’t bounce.” After arriving at the Segregation Unit, Oquendo was placed in a cell. A nurse checked him. The time was around 12:55. Oquendo was unresponsive, and the nurse radioed for help. CPR was performed, and an ambulance summoned at 1:10. It was dispatched at 1:11. The nature of the call, according to the dispatcher’s report, was “serious injury of unknown origin, type.” The ambulance arrived at the prison at 1:26 and left for the hospital at 1:32. It arrived at the hospital at 1:42. Oquendo was pronounced dead in the emergency room of Dukes Memorial Hospital. The time was 2:14. A Critical Incident Report was filed at 3:30. The type was “Offender Death (non-homicide).” The report said the time of the incident was 1:15. The incident description listed only Oquendo’s name and number, and mentions the location. There were no notes about the investigation status, no report on what happened and no notes on whether or not the facility would be put into lockdown. Eight witnesses were named in the DOC investigation report. None of them were inmates.
Manner of death: homicide
After Oquendo’s death, Knight urged prisoners to remain calm. He met with eight or nine friends of Oquendo, all Latino. Both Adams and Richardson said the men were high-ranking members of the Latin Kings gang, but Knight denied that. It is unclear if Oquendo had any association with the gang. Officials originally thought Oquendo died from his medical conditions because he had no visible injuries. The Miami County coroner, Dr. Michael Mull, started the inquest the day Oquendo died. The body was examined, an autopsy conducted, a cause established. “Cause of death: positional asphyxia during restraint,” Mull wrote in the coroner’s report. “Manner of death: homicide.” Homicide? Deputy Coroner Tom Eddy Sr. explained. “Homicide is one’s taking of another life,” he said. “When they tried to subdue him, he suffocated.” Pattison said there is a difference between homicide and murder. “All murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murder.” She said that if a man died on the operating table during open heart surgery, his manner of death is a homicide although his death is not a murder. Oquendo’s body was sent to Alpha Funeral Service’s Greater South Side Crematory. His fiancee claimed the remains. The Department of Correction began an internal investigation. The Indiana State Police also investigated. Knight said he wanted the state police involved in order to show full disclosure. Bennett, Daher, Richardson and Sadler said inmates were furious. Adams wrote in a Feb. 16 letter, “This facility is like a powder keg. Officers are scared to do their jobs.” Knight said he urged the inmates to remain calm. Some of the guards involved were reassigned for their protection. “[Homicide is] why I’m here,” inmate Daher said. “Soon as they thought I’d done it, before anyone had pointed the finger, I was locked up. But these guys are still walking around. … After this happened, they said they were reviewing the policy. Why don’t they let me out and I’ll reconsider the way I handled things?” Richardson agreed. “We are sent to prison to learn our lessons,” he said. “We’re taught how to get away with everything because we watch the staff get away with everything.”
“No criminal intent”
Indiana State Police detective Mike Tarrh told NUVO he could not remember if he spoke to inmate witnesses. He said Oquendo was “unresponsive” in the Segregation Unit and pronounced dead in the emergency room, even though the State Police report stated, “Prison inmate died in the Segregation Unit of the prison facility.” Tarrh said the body had no signs of trauma. There was blood on his mouth, apparently from when Oquendo bit himself when he fell. Tarrh said there were marks on the wrists from how he was secured. Tarrh said he could not recall if there was any head trauma or if Oquendo had suffered a seizure. The inquest concluded on Feb. 4. Miami County Prosecutor Eric Huneryager promptly announced that no criminal action would be taken against the staff. “Based on the evidence presented, there was no crime committed,” Huneryager said in a phone interview. “There’s a difference between intentional or criminally reckless conduct and conduct which may have been negligent.” Huneryager refused to comment on whether or not the guards were negligent. “The officers involved did not know that the way they were carrying him would cause him to be unable to breathe,” Pattison said. No one was reprimanded, but the director of the emergency response team decided the officers would be trained in new restraint techniques. Corrections officers must complete 80 hours of initial training, including 12 hours minimum training in security skills such as restraint techniques. Corrections officers must complete 40 hours of subsequent training each year, with some review of restraint techniques. Other agencies are investigating Oquendo’s death. According to Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesman Doug Garrison, the FBI is conducting a civil rights investigation and will report the results to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Knight and Pattison conclude that the inmate’s death was not caused by a criminal or negligent act. “There was no criminal intent,” Pattison said. “It was an unfortunate situation, but it did not result from negligence,” Knight said. “It was an unfortunate situation, but there was no malice. There was no intent to cause harm to this individual. … I’m not sure what we could have done to prevent that loss of life.” Knight said that several agencies have reviewed the video of Oquendo’s restraint and transport. “No one who has had any reviews has concluded anything other than it was an unfortunate situation,” he said. “Most of the offenders understood that it was an unfortunate situation.” Inmate Richardson disagreed. “We are learning very well from our keepers,” he wrote. “We are learning how to lie, how to cheat, how to cover our butts and how to kill and get away with it. … I’m doing my time for murder and can’t even get a break after 22 years. I think it’s time the officers involved do their time with no breaks.”
From the publisher NUVO files complaint for access to prison video I regret to say that the compelling story by Becky Oberg that you are reading is not as well-reported as we at NUVO would like. There are several disagreements about what happened on the day of Dec. 4, 2002, at Miami Correctional Facility, but a key piece of information that could shed light on the events was not included as part of this article. It’s certainly not Becky Oberg’s fault. Rather, the Indiana Department of Correction has refused NUVO’s written request to view the videotape that chronicles the last moments of Angel Oquendo’s life. The Indiana DOC says that security concerns are adequate justification for blocking public access to the tape. We disagree. So, last week, NUVO filed a Formal Complaint with the Indiana public access counselor under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. We are asking the counselor to find that the Department of Correction should release access to the videotape, which is included in the law as a form of record available for public view. This complaint is a precursor to filing suit, a course NUVO is also prepared to follow if necessary. In passing the Public Records Act, the General Assembly declared “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government.” If Indiana’s law is to fulfill the General Assembly’s noble intent, we feel that the public must have the right to access even potentially embarrassing government records such as the Oquendo videotape. We’ll keep you posted on the complaint process and any subsequent litigation. For more information about the Indiana Access to Public Records Act and Indiana Open Door Law, check the Web site of the Indiana public access counselor, www.IN.gov/pac. For information about the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, a group of citizens and journalists devoted to insuring access to government deliberations and information, see www.indianacog.org. Thank you. —Kevin McKinney, publisher/editor
The Ombudsman Bureau The Indiana Ombudsman Bureau has broad authority to review complaints from inmates, their families and Department of Correction staff. The law creating the ombudsman’s office passed in March of 2002 over then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s veto. However, the Legislature did not allocate any immediate funding. In July of 2002, the Legislature allocated $150,000. However, no ombudsman was hired until October 2003, when Gov. Joseph Kernan appointed Kelly Whiteman to the position. Whiteman, a veteran attorney, said the Ombudsman Bureau for the DOC will provide “an independent set of eyes and ears.” But Whiteman admits the $150,000 allotted for the bureau is “a very minimal amount.” “The DOC itself receives 500 letters a month,” she said. “If we receive the number of complaints we anticipate, we’re going to need more staff. … One hundred fifty thousand is not going to go very far.” Dan Gettelfinger, deputy commissioner and general counsel for the Indiana Department of Administration, said the Ombudsman Bureau is seeking both state and federal grants, including grants from the Department of Justice and the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. “We’re looking for creative ways to increase the funding,” he said. The General Assembly put several features into the law designed to guard the ombudsman’s credibility: • The ombudsman will have access to offender records and immediate access to any DOC facility. • Anyone releasing records to the ombudsman is immune from civil or criminal liability as well as “actions taken under a professional disciplinary procedure dealing with an employee of the Department of Correction.” • Communication between the ombudsman and any person is a privileged communication. The ombudsman will not disclose the identity of a complainant without the person’s written consent or a court order, except when necessary to investigate and resolve the complaint. • Any person who interferes with the ombudsman’s work, offers compensation to the ombudsman in an effort to affect an investigation’s or potential investigation’s outcome, retaliates against anyone who provides information to the ombudsman or threatens anyone involved in an investigation or potential investigation commits a Class A misdemeanor. Inquiries to Kelly Whiteman, Indiana’s prison ombudsman, can be sent to: 402 W. Washington St., W479, Indianapolis, IN 46204. —BO