Virginia’s prisons chief showed troubling indifference to a death

March 7

WHEN HE was hired in 2010 to run Virginia’s prison system, Harold W. Clarke arrived with a quarter-century of experience, including top jobs in three other states. That’s why it’s so disturbing that Mr. Clarke, as head of the Massachusetts prison system the year before he came to Virginia, appeared to set in motion what amounts to a whitewash of a disturbed young man’s death at the hands of poorly trained prison guards.

The death in 2009 of 23-year-old Joshua Messier, which Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) now calls “disgusting,” has been the subject of two powerful investigative stories in the Boston Globe in recent weeks. Messier was a paranoid schizophrenic with a history of violence; a judge had sent him to the state’s main prison housing the mentally ill as a patient, not a convict.

A video of the incident leading to his death shows guards folding Messier’s body virtually in half — a prohibited technique known as “suitcasing,” in which the chest in pushed to the knees. An autopsy showed extensive wounds to the body, suggesting that Messier may have also been beaten. The guards had no real training in dealing with mentally ill people.

The medical examiner who performed the autopsy initially ruled Messier’s death a homicide. Days later, Mr. Clarke, in a meeting with his top staff, brushed aside that conclusion without having made inquiries of his own or even requesting to see the video.

Senior and mid-level corrections officials fell in line, mounting what the Globe’s reporting shows was a pattern of foot-dragging, dissembling and cover-ups. In the months before Mr. Clarke left for Virginia, officials at the prison where Messier died requested five “extensions” in an effort to avoid filing a report on the guards’ use of force.

No one was prosecuted or punished until the newspaper’s initial report last month prompted Mr. Patrick to order an inquiry and, last weekend, to announce sweeping disciplinary action. Among those reprimanded was the state’s current corrections commissioner, who had been following a policy of obfuscation established under his predecessor, Mr. Clarke.

In an interview, Mr. Clarke told us that he had no reason to request the video showing the incident leading to Messier’s death. He said that, in the absence of any indication of wrongdoing, he was trying to send a supportive message to prison guards.

But even modestly probing questions would have shown that evidence presented by the medical examiner and the video warranted further inquiry. That’s the least that should have happened.

At Mr. Patrick’s behest, heads are rolling in the Massachusetts corrections department, including those of Mr. Clarke’s then-top deputies, who ignored findings by internal investigators in 2011 and 2013 that cited the guards for misconduct. We asked Mr. Clarke if he could have been more aggressive at the time in ascertaining how Messier died. He said, “Looking back after the fact, you could say, ‘Yeah, that’s something that I should’ve done.’ ”

If Mr. Clarke had remained in his job in Massachusetts, it’s a good bet he’d be a subject of the state’s belated investigation of Messier’s death. At the least, let’s hope he’s learned a lesson about the importance of adequately training prison guards in dealing with mentally ill convicts and patients, and that he applies it in Virginia.

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