I began this blog in May 2009 following the death of Marcia Powell at Perryville State Prison in Goodyear, Arizona. It is not intended to prescribe the path that leads to freedom from the prison industrial complex.

Rather, these are just my observations in arguably the most racist, fascist, militaristic state in the nation at a critical time in history for a number of intersecting liberation movements. From Indigenous resistance to genocidal practices, to the fight over laws like SB1070 and the ban on Ethnic Studies, Arizona is at the center of many battles for human rights, and thus the struggle for prison abolition as well - for none are free until all are. I retired the blog in APRIL 2013.

Visit me now at Arizona Prison Watch or Survivors of Prison Violence-AZ

David Rovics: We Are Everywhere

To my fellow activists now struggling through life - let this be a reminder that you are not alone and that we desperately need you here. All the injustice, grief, war, and human suffering calls for us to stay and do everything we can about it - you can't help us anymore when you're gone. Don't give up the fight - your last shred of hope may just keep someone else alive, too.

Monday, September 8, 2014


a free Marcia Powell in 2008
 on Van Buren and 16th st, downtown Phoenix
Photo by Gary Millard

As many of my friends in Phoenix know, from time to time over the course of the past few years an awesome Australian filmmaker by the name of PJ Starr has come out to visit me and film area activists for her documentary about the death of Marcia Powell - the catalyst for Arizona Prison Watch to be born in the summer of 2009. 

Well, folks, it's finally almost done. We need some help to finish it, though, so please give if you can - there's an Indigogo fund set up for it, and we can really use your help. The title of the film comes from a time when the cops would document homicide victims as being male or female; in the case of prostitutes, however, they would write "NO HUMAN INVOLVED".

Here's PJ talking about "No Human Involved", along with the trailer - it looks really compelling. 

Thanks to Ruth Jacobs for this interview.

Please help Free Marcia Powell, and visit the Indigogo page...


‘No Human Involved’: Filmmaker PJ Starr Discusses Her Documentary Telling Marcia Powell’s Story

PJ Starr Photograph by Mike Shipley taken during filming
PJ Starr – picture taken during filming
Photo credit: Mike Shipley

Can you tell me about your current project No Human Involved?

In 2009 my friend and colleague Cris Sardina (who is now the co-coordinator of the Desiree Alliance) sent me an email about the death of Marcia Powell in Perryville Prison outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Marcia had been serving a 27 month sentence for solicitation of prostitution and corrections officers had left her out in the sun in a metal cage in searing heat until she collapsed. Soon after, in hospital her life was ended when the Director of Arizona Department of Corrections removed her from life support.

Cris Sardina of Desiree Alliance holding pictures of Marcia Powell
Photo credit: PJ Starr

Cris Sardina of Desiree Alliance holding pictures of Marcia Powell Photo credit: PJ StarrAfter reading about what happened, Marcia’s story was always with me.

Later in 2010 at the Filmmakers’ Collaborative at the Maysles Institute in Harlem, NYC, I began to develop the idea of investigating Marcia’s case as a potential documentary film. Many of my peers at Maysles—who were people with a lot of community organizing knowledge already—were quite astounded by the sentence she was serving and what had happened to her. I knew then that documenting what had happened to Marcia Powell could be a vital step in educating the general public about the real harms caused to people in the sex trade by the prison industrial complex.

It was a departure for me to embark on this documentary for a wide range of reasons. In 2010 I didn’t know anyone in Phoenix, I wasn’t acquainted with the organizing there and I didn’t know Marcia personally either. My previous work had always been with folks I had known for years. But my film mentor Carol Leigh encouraged me to try this new step and connected me to several key activists in Phoenix, most importantly with Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch. In March of 2011, I visited Peggy and several other the local activists to ask if they thought the film should be made and if my approach appealed to them. I knew from being involved in grassroots organizing that so often “outside experts” suck the energy out of community to “tell a news story” or make a film and this was something I wanted to avoid doing. Everything fell into place during that first journey, we all were on the same page. People were also beginning to reflect on how Marcia’s death had set a series of events in motion and wanted to talk about that in the context of a documentary.
Marcia Powell - Peggy's Chalking
What do you hope this project will achieve?

Chalking by Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch

I want people to understand that what happened to Marcia can happen again. The film is not about an isolated, shocking incident (even though the case is horrific), rather it explores an example that exposes the system. As a member of Phoenix Food Not Bombs said at Marcia’s memorial service in 2009, “this has happened before, it will happen again, it happens to men, women and transgender people.” There is a mistaken belief amongst concerned people out there that somehow going to prison can “turn someone’s life around” and help people “escape” prostitution or drug use. So, the first part of the message of NO HUMAN INVOLVED is that prison is not safe, you don’t get comprehensive services there, you are dehumanized. If you are a woman who doesn’t conform to a very narrow set of gender norms set out in prison, you are at greater risk, or if you are trans, or queer, or if you have a mental health issue. The second part is that a web of terrible laws and policies—ranging from statutes to prevent walking and sleeping in public space and surviving through sex work—are sending people to prison for very long periods of time under mandatory sentencing. And to spell out the point, I think there are many, many people in the general public who want women like Marcia to “be helped” but they don’t yet understand the real functioning of the law, how policing happens, what happens to you in the court room and the system that classifies you once you are inside a prison. NO HUMAN INVOLVED unpacks all of this step by step so that audiences can think differently about what needs to change. The film is also raises awareness about the sheer numbers of people being arrested under the current criminalization of the sex trade in Arizona and the sheer numbers of people being placed in jails and prisons for doing what they need to live.

Can you share about the research you’ve undertaken to get this off the ground?

When I first started developing the film idea in 2010 and early 2011, I read a lot of online materials and reports about Marcia’s death. Since then the ACLU Arizona has published some very important documents about the experiences of prisoners that also form background information for the film. Over time NO HUMAN INVOLVED has evolved into very much a community project. Even though I have experience in doing research, finding accurate information relating to incarceration has been a learning curve and I am in awe of what folks in Phoenix can do. A colleague in Arizona has shown me how to request extremely detailed information from Arizona Department of Corrections and my good friend Monica Jones not only explained how the courts function in Arizona but encouraged me to find recordings and video tapes of Marcia’s court appearances. Kini Seawright (of the Seawright Prison Justice Project), has helped me seek out connections in the activist community to find people who personally knew Marcia. Kini keeps me putting my heart into the film. I’ve spoken to scores of people to record background interviews, including some with amazing women who were in Perryville with Marcia who have shared about who she was and how she was treated. I’ve met and interviewed people from the corrections system and a local filmmaker gave me truly vital original footage of Charles Ryan (the director of the Department of Corrections) speaking about the case at a memorial for Marcia organized by activists in 2009. In order to document how the community has responded in the years since Marcia’s death, I’ve attended (and filmed) church services, memorials, meetings at local women’s groups, rallies, actions, I’ve filmed (with permission) in the court and spoken to law enforcement. I’ve seen (and documented) the emergence of SWOP Phoenix as a presence to challenge the policing practices that put Marcia on that path to Perryville Prison.

What stage is the project at currently?

I am working with a very dedicated editor in the NYC area on the second cut of the film. Once we have enough funding, we will refine it, and create the DVD to begin the film’s distribution. As with most films these days NO HUMAN INVOLVED has been a labor of love (ie unfunded) but there are certain things such as mastering the DVD that I need to have done professionally in order to get Marcia’s story the attention it deserves.

Are you looking for people to be involved?

If folks are on social media they should follow/like the NO HUMAN INVOLVED project on Facebook and Twitter or send me an email to get updates as the film is completed and released. Currently I am hosting the first online fundraiser I have ever done to support one of my own creative projects to raise what we need for the absolutely essential things that a really polished documentary needs. Donations are tax deductible and every cent will be going back to support the film.

In the future as we plan actions and connect to campaigns related to the film, there will be many other things for people to engage with so please find a way to get in touch. I am also always happy to share what I have learned with others in the community so if a reader wants support in developing a rights based project related to the theme of NO HUMAN INVOLVED then I am happy to do as much as I can to share information, skills and connections.

Who is the target audience and what message do you want them to take away with them?

With this film I am taking a step out to interface with people who may know a little about the impact of incarceration but who have not yet had a chance to connect the dots about anti-prostitution policies, policing, the prison industrial complex and people in the community who also happen to be engaged (or profiled as engaging) in sex work. And even though as rights based activists we have collectively made enormous strides in explaining all of this, I am sure that there is a very large number of people out there who want to do the right thing by the communities of people mentioned in the film (sex workers, people with mental health issues, people with experiences of incarceration) but need more information. The film is a rights project engaging with the audience to explain that prisons are not a solution and that human rights, not “rescue” by the police, are what work best. The phrase “no human involved” indicates that the powers that be are not interested in investigating violence committed against certain groups of people because their lives are considered unimportant. The documentary NO HUMAN INVOLVED reaffirms Marcia’s humanity and is an investigation of its own kind. Finally, the phrase “free Marcia Powell” (first used by Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch) is repeated throughout the film and will anchor social media strategies in a call for liberation of Marcia’s spirit and all those who are still incarcerated.

What are your plans for the future? 

Once NO HUMAN INVOLVED is completed, I will turn my activist attention to ensuring the film leads to the change that we intend. But I am also beginning to work on another project with Monica and some other people in Phoenix.

Where can people find out more about your project?

I am keeping updates flowing very regularly on Facebook and Twitter, and the film is currently fiscally sponsored as a Women Make Movies project.

Recommended websites/further reading:

I highly recommend checking out Peggy Plews writing at Arizona Prison Watch.

The book Women’s Resistance Behind Bars by Victoria Law illustrates how women in prisons seek justice and is essential reading. Victoria is also an advisor to NO HUMAN INVOLVED. Victoria and colleagues at Truthout also provide an instructive commentary on documentary and journalist portrayals of prisoners at a 2014 panel discussion at the Left Forum in NYC. They describe what works and what undermines activism and recommend some excellent films to view as well.

For very honest and insightful information from someone who has worked within the Department of Corrections at a senior level, I recommend the various writings of Carl Toersbijns.

To support the final phase of producing the documentary NO HUMAN INVOLVED click here to donate to the Indiegogo campaign.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

AZ DOC's Protective Custody fight: tend to both body and soul.

I've been hearing from a lot of guys lately who are about to go to prison with what are called "issues" - reasons to request protective custody (also known as the 805 process, named after the DOC policy that covers it). I hate to say it, but AZ has the reputation of being the worst place in the country to do time in state prison. The DOC is facing a class action suit for gross medical neglect, inappropriate use of solitary confinement, and neglect and abuse of mentally ill prisoners. Race riots are erupting. The prison suicide and homicide rates doubled when Jan Brewer too over four years ago, and have remained among the highest in the nation. Assaults are out of control. And the officers are apparently as violent and criminally-inclined as the people they guard.

The prison yards across the state are being run by prisoners and gangs, not DOC staff, it's quite clear to me now. When you land you have to show the "leader" (or someone who will report to him) your police report - those are your "papers". By these you will be judged as a snitch (if you spilled the beans to the cops on arrest), as a perpetrtor of crime (ANY kind) against a woman or a child, or any number of other things they can use to justify telling you your papers are "no good". Then they may tell you that you either need to "clear your name" by doing dirty work for them, risk getting smashed into a coma and airvac'ed, or PC up and leave the yard. Not showing your papers is an indication that you have something to hide. 

Prisoners are given no choice on this. If your police papers are good, get a copy so you can get cleared quickly by the guys on the yard. If not, I wouldn't bring them in with you - they get stolen by porters and used as evidence against you among your peers, who will be much harder on you than the courts were. Have your family hold on to a copy of anything that can be shown to the DOC as evidence that you are at risk, though - anything suggesting you cooperated with police or prosecutors, court papers of your testimony, media articles about your crime or victim (even if your crime was pickpocketing, if your victim was a woman or child, you could be at risk), etc. If you need to apply for PC, they will need to send that material directly to Central Office to support your argument while making sure it doesn't get into the hands of the prisoner population.

Once on the yard, if your paperwork is bad: 

If you're given the chance to "clear your name" don't try to do so by hurting another prisoner, especially some guy who never did a thing to you himself. It will not guarantee you protection. The gangs will turn on you once you no longer meet their needs, and you'll be the next one they put the green light on - and no other prisoner will respect you enough by then to have your back, so you'll have to tuck your tail between your legs and go scurrying to the guards for safety, anyway

Paying extortion money (often demanded of gay prisoners to assure their safety) won't protect you for long, either. And for god's sake, don't get into any debt - not drugs, not gambling, not a little advance on your store - nothing. All that does is put a green light on you - the okay to hurt or kill you - that can be activated as soon as you default. If you owe money, then sooner or later all you're going to do is lead those people home to threaten those who love you. Don't do it.

My advice is to do some real reflecting now so you know what you will and won't compromise in order to assure your own safety. Realize that the most precious freedoms are often taken from us without a scratch - it's the freedom to choose who we are and how we live in whatever world we are confined to. What are you willing to take a beating for, or even risk dying for? Is there anything - like the sanctity of human life, or the deepest part of your soul - that's worth putting yourself on the line for? If not, then you have some more serious issues than those which got you into trouble with other prisoners. 

If someone tells you the only way you can survive is to compromise that which you've determined you won't, tell them to fuck off - then brace yourself, and get to safety. Don't stand around and wait to be smashed - PC up if you need to, and get a hold of me right away. I'm Peggy Plews at Arizona Prison Watch / PO box 20494 / Phoenix, AZ 85036.

This comes up this morning because of a call I had with a prisoner's mom last night - her kid's a new arrival, facing over 6 years for burglary. He's a little guy with asthma and some learning disabilities, maybe a mental illness as well - he's scared to death. I wrote up this letter below for him, based on what a lot of other guys have told me about surviving prison with one's integrity intact. It seems appropriate to share here, for those of you about to hit the AZ DOC. 

If you're heading in for a term yourself, spend a little time perusing this blog first, call me if you have any questions, and make sure your family knows I'm an accessible resource for them and you - no charge. This is my own little way of fighting back against both gang and state violence. I seek to "abolish" the prisons of today by breaking through those walls and touching every person I can. I bring with me a mirror by which people who have been told their lives are worth less than nothing  can look into their own souls to find what is worth loving and believing in again, and fighting for. And I try to give prisoners the basic tools they need to resist the violence, despair, and oppression of incarceration. It's relatively easy for me - for anyone out there - to do. The real hard work - and the greatest risk - is on the prisoner.

Feel free to print up the letter below and send it in to anyone who may be hitting the DOC in similar straits. Here, also, is the letter I wrote to all prisoners dealing with protective custody applications: 

and this is a guide to actually making an effective 805 argument, written by another priosner:

--------to a male prisoner in the AZ DOC assessment/intake process------
Hey David -

I got your postcard and spoke with your mom tonight. Sorry to hear you’re in such a jam. The DOC has likely already told you they won’t be placing you in protective custody - the PC yards are all full and the detention cells across the state are spilling over with guys in your shoes, or worse, right now, so they’re going to hand you some BS to justify sending you into GP. Appeal the decision so they have to give you a denial in writing, but don’t get your hopes up - my bet is that you’re heading for a 3 yard, and as soon as you hit they’ll want your papers, which I understand are the problem.

Once you land on a regular yard, PC up right away if it isn’t feeling safe there, and get ahold of me. - I need you to outline the argument you’re making to the DOC for why the threat you face is statewide, etc.  If you refuse to house, they may ticket you. Fight the ticket on the grounds that going on the yard would endanger you - that’s very important. Make them explicitly justify putting you in harms way and punishing you for resisting, get copies of everything you can,  and send me all your documentation. That’s ammunition for your fight down the road.

Your application will take longer - more denials and appeals - if you don’t show that you’ve actually been threatened or assaulted on the yard they send you to, but I can’t guarantee that you can survive the first attack, so I don’t encourage guys to wait for it before they PC up. By law, you don’t have to be assaulted in order to prove your need for protective segregation. But in practice, you’ll need to be able to build a stronger case for it than you have now to overcome all the barriers to getting into PC these days.

Basically, the violence in the state prisons is so out of control that more people are fleeing it than perpetrating it. No one is getting approved for PC who doesn’t have a lawyer or some heavy artillery on their side. Your mom and I are going to work on the artillery since she can’t swing  a lawyer, but that doesn’t get you off the hook. You need to become a damn good advocate and exercise your power yourself, in a very short time. You’re the one the DOC needs to be afraid of, not us, as only you can file a federal suit if your civil rights are violated. The DOC needs to know that you’re smart enough and assertive enough to do so. You’re going to need to scare them even while you’re sitting quietly in your shorts in the hole.

It should come as no surprise that the DOC isn’t primarily concerned about the danger you guys are in - they’re concerned with the danger the institution may be in from any of you or your families if you are hurt or killed. That’s how they appear to be prioritizing PC applications, so don’t think that your life has been devalued any more than any other prisoner’s, or that there’s anything you’ve said or done particularly wrong that means you deserve a worse time of it than any other prisoner.

You’re just landing in the AZ DOC at this time in history, when things are especially rough. I think you can get through this and still come out a better man - not because of anything the DOC does to help you, but because your mom believes you have it within you to transcend and grow beyond this experience. But you’re going to have to fight for your life in there, and it’s the state, not the other prisoners, that is most likely to kill you if you aren’t on your toes. Between your asthma, your vulnerability to assault, and your lack of political power, you are high risk and you can’t count on the AZ DOC to care for or protect you - they are there to punish you, to make you suffer. You need to build the best relationships you can with other prisoners, instead - and arm yourself with civil rights law as if your life depended on it like water - it does.

If you screwed up on the streets or hurt someone bad, take responsibility for it and show others that you’re a man of integrity now. The gangs give guys a chance to “clear your name” by doing bad things to others - don’t hurt someone else even if it seems like the only way to survive yourself. Develop a simple moral code you can easily explain and always fall back on when faced with dilemmas, one that gives you spiritual strength when people treat you as if you deserve to die.

If you learn all about prisoner rights and how to navigate the system in there, the other guys will begin to respect and value you for who you are now; who you once were becomes less important, then. Build a reputation of being someone who can be trusted to show good judgement and to know how to fight back against state oppression - become that kind of warrior. You don’t need to become some big jailhouse lawyer - keep it on the downlow, actually, if you do figure out the ropes, so the DOC doesn’t slap you down and try to cut you off from other guys who need the help. Become useful in there, but remain humble and discreet.

If you can do those things, they will protect you more in the long run than the DOC ever will, because all the DOC can do is put a wall between you and those who would hurt you - it doesn’t change anyone thinking they have the right or need to hurt you, though, which will catch up to you someday, when the walls are gone. You need to fix that now. Think of the detention cells and hardships you’re about to face as giving you a period of spiritual and mental training, like a Jedi knight being held as a prisoner of war in a dungeon full of lions. It’s okay to fantasize silly things like that if they build your inner strength, The danger you face there is real and bigger than normal life,  and you’ll need to psych yourself up somehow, with superhuman powers, to get through it, because there will be times when you’ll just want to lie down and quietly die. Don’t. Write to me or your mom instead.

I’m enclosing a guide to fighting for your 805 that another prisoner helped us come up with, based on his experience. I’m also enclosing a letter about the 805 process - it’s from February, but it’s all still good. I’m also sending you a questionnaire to give me a better idea of how else I can help; send that back when you land someplace. Keep your eyes and ears open for folks who might hurt you, but keep your head up, too - don’t let your shame tell anyone else it’s okay to hurt you. Make real amends where you can and take responsibility for what you feel bad about instead, or that’s the crap that will get you killed.

Hang in there and keep me posted on how things are going - I told your mom I’m yours as long as you guys need me, for whatever it’s worth, until you land someplace you feel relatively safe. My arms aren’t long enough to wrap around you guys in there, though - I can’t protect you. I can only really support, encourage, pray for you and be witness to your struggle.

Let me know when you land on the next yard.

Take care -