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.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Write a Letter. Save a Life.

I have an old Amnesty International poster I've been lugging around for 20 years now; I always hang it on the wall in front of my desk, so I see it when I look over the top of my computer screen. It's a black and white photograph of an old Royal typewriter, with the caption at the bottom reading: "This is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight for human rights. Write a letter. Save a life."

So, when Amnesty asks me to sign a petition, send an email, or write a prisoner a card, I often do. I write even if it looks my letter will be just one of thousands going to an embassy mailroom. Even if it looks like my letter may be just one of a handful drowned out by the silence of millions, I write. And I write even if it seems like it won't really matter, because for all I know that letter could be just what was needed for the collective conscience to finally register a resounding "no!" to torture, rape, genocide, slavery, and the death penalty.

As a result of organizing by Amnesty, the NAACP, and several other international groups and celebrities, a couple of congressmen from Georgia are looking at drafting legislation specifically to stop the execution of Troy Anthony Davis. The Supreme Court is giving the case one final look - they've refused to consider it several times already. In the meantime, the NAACP is training 300 organizers to take up the PR campaign to get Georgia - or someone - to stop the execution and give him a new trial.

The link at the bottom of the column to the left goes to Amnesty International's website about Troy. Whatever else one thinks about the death penalty, we have a principle of justice in America that precludes us from executing the innocent, and if Troy Davis' jury had available to them then what we have now, they never would have found him guilty - much less sentenced him to die.

I don't believe in the death penalty for either the innocent or the guilty, but I hope this campaign saves Troy's life, and that it leads to the truth about innocence. Troy's case may not be all that exceptional. In one prominent study, 68% of all death sentences were reversed on appeal because of serious errors in the original trial. Black men have been found to be mistakenly identified as guilty parties in cross-racial identifications more often than white men. Black men are also intentionally portrayed as criminals to deflect attention from white people's crimes. And then there are the Baldus studies, which demonstrated that in Georgia defendants convicted of killing whites were 4.3 times more likely to get the death penalty than anyone convicted of killing blacks - evidence that the state values the lives of white people more than it values the lives of blacks. That pattern has been repeated in studies across the country.

Need I say that Troy - an African American man - was convicted of killing a white police officer?

I'm inclined to agree with Thurgood Marshall: that if most Americans really knew the truth about the death penalty, it would be so disturbing to them that capital punishment would be abolished. Specifically, we would find it "shocking, unjust, and unacceptable..." Yes, it costs a lot more money to prosecute someone under the death penalty than it does to just send them to prison for life. And yes, sometimes the innocent are condemned and executed. But that's not what Justice Marshall found so repugnant about it. It's that it's outright racist, and has a long history of racist application across the country. Out of the approximately 16,000 executions conducted in America from 1608-1945, only 30 were of whites for crimes against blacks. Thirty. Now look at the Baldus findings, presented to the Supreme Court in the McCleskey v. Kemp case in 1987. By a 5-4 majority the Court ruled that evidence of institutionalized racism isn't enough to show that one's consitutional rights are violated by discrimination. As Powell essentially argued in the majority opinion, if we give an inch on the death penalty, the legitimacy of the whole criminal justice system is in question. In retirement he said that was one decision he would rule differently on now, by the way. Think of what that might have changed...

So I have concerns about the direction of death penalty abolition campaigns these days, though I understand the temptation of an open door where there was once a stone wall. A campaign emphasizing abolition because of the risk of executing the innocent implies that executing the "guilty" is okay, leaving open the use of capital punishment in cases where evidence of guilt is "incontrovertible". Having abandoned the whole principle of humanity and dignity, then, where are we on arguing it's cruel and unusual to execute anyone?

Then there's the economic argument - some bills are getting pushed through to repeal the death penalty because implementing it is so expensive. A few states, though, did what I'd expect death penalty adherents to do: they tried changing their laws to expedite the capital punishment process, making it cheaper to ultimately execute someone. The economic argument would suggest skipping the appeals process altogether and having everyone summarily shot once sentenced. That would save money.

But it's not like I'm the one in there fighting on this one - I just write letters, sign petitions, and try to spread the word. I want to make it clear why I oppose the death penalty, though: it's racist and it brutalizes us as a people. I hope the folks leading the charge to abolish it don't let us forget those very basic things. If Americans abolish it because it's too expensive or needs to be tweaked, then there's room for improvement. State executions, we should maintain, cannot be "improved"; there's no such thing as a good death penalty.

It may be awhile yet before the death penalty is abolished across the country. In the meantime there are people like Troy Davis. Even the Innocence Project has taken up his case. So, if you get a minute, visit Amnesty's site, and write a letter today; save a life.


Found this article "Ruses of beneficence and rituals of exclusion" at the Workplace Journal through the University of Louisville website. I think the collective of academics who put it together was based in Canada though; don't know if they're even publishing anymore. In any even, the article gives a good account of what it means to be mentally ill in an Arizona supermax - and of the unique torment of the punishment of isolation.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Now For The Other Cages...

Stephen Lemons from the Phoenix New Times was there today, too. His blog following the service is worth reading; the title for today is "Charles Ryan Attends Marcia Powell's Memorial Service, Says He Didn't Know Powell Had Guardian."

Also, I received a thoughtful email from Donna Hamm this evening. According to a representative from the Governor's office, the DOC will no longer be using the outdoor cages at all (also confirmed in Lemons' story); the retrofit idea has been scrapped. Now to get people out of the "regular" cages...

Finally, I came across this post from ("Inmate Killed in Punishment Cage...") when I was Googling earlier. It makes some pretty strong allegations of misconduct; I'm surprised it's still there. Time will tell if it's accurate, I suppose. That's assuming an investigation gets at the truth.

Because She Matters

I was visited by the blogger at today. Her site also appears to have come up in the wake of Marcia's death, out of a desire to do something for other women in the sex trade. Since I didn't get an email address from her, I just wanted to say thank you. Perhaps our paths will soon cross.

The service for Marcia today was well-attended: I'd say seventy-five to a hundred people came in all. There was an interesting cross-section of the community - not only were there prisoner advocates, but Women in Black, Code Pink, anarchists and the Department of Corrections were all represented, as was the faith community. Stan Hemry, a longtime local peace activist, described meeting Marcia while serving people meals for "Phoenix Food Not Bombs"

(Food Not Bombs is worth supporting; they salvage food from local stores and restaurants, cook it up and serve it for free in public places frequented by hungry people. Cities all over the country have been trying to pass legislation banning them from feeding people because what they do is political, it's not charity. They make hunger visible, and challenge the popular notion that nothing can be done about it. They reclaim the commons. They put food to use that would otherwise go to waste. And most of their meals are vegan, so that no animals are hurt in the process of making them.)

Anyway, if anyone knows hungry people on the street, it's the folks with Food Not Bombs. Stan's memory of Marcia was so distinct because of her missing teeth: she needed help finding food that was soft enough to eat. He said he remembers her being nice and saying thank you - which is more than any of the rest of us could say, having come to know her only through the eyes of those who have seen her criminal records. Given that, however, it was good to see how many people turned out to pay their respects, to show they cared, and to commit themselves to seeking changes in the systems which have let so many people down, Marcia only being the latest to die as a consequence.

Donna Hamm of Middle Ground Prison Reform was quite emphatic that no outdoor cage - covered or not - is an acceptable place to hold human beings. Right on. And the AZ DOC has over 200 of them scattered across 10 prison complexes in the state. Marcia's treatment wasn't exceptional - it was the norm. She just happens to have died from it. Donna also maintains that an independent investigation needs to be done into the incident and the AZ DOC's policies, and has called on the AZ attorney general to initiate a criminal investigation.

I wonder if Marcia had lived to complain about it if any of us would stop and listen. Who would know what complaints have already been lodged against the DOC for inhumane treatment? How would the public ever know?

Hundreds of prisoners - nearly two thousand at one point - in the Maricopa County jails have been on a hunger strike for weeks over food and conditions. People inside and outside alike having been protesting human rights violations by the MCSO. How is that man still in office?

How much of our outrage over prisoner rights is evoked by the image of a battered white woman that isn't aroused by the image of a latino man in chains? Is one any more or less deserving than the other? I guess each of us has to ask that question of ourselves as we consider how far we're willing to go now for justice: justice for Marcia and every other prisoner of the state.

Donna called for Arizona to pass "Marcia's Law", one or more pieces of legislation to assure protections of prisoner rights. I guess the prisoner's right to life is probably one that needs to be made explicit. I'd shoot for restoring civil rights of prisoners, amending the slavery provision of the 13th Amendment, and prohibiting prison privatization. So long as they're considered less than full citizens and their exploitation profits someone, prisoner's rights can't really be protected.

In addition to helping to channel the energies of the community into a call for action, I think the point of Marcia's service was to reinforce a community standard that every life has value, and that every human being should be treated with dignity. We don't like to see ourselves as perpetrators of torture in America, yet we allow people to needlessly suffer. Getting justice for Marcia means more than holding people responsible for the immediate circumstances of her death. The brutality that Marcia endured lasted more than a few hours or a day, as evidenced by the traumatized woman's eyes in that haunting mug shot. She was punished all her life.

As for the Department of Corrections: Ryan (who was present for the service) is lucky there wasn't a massive call for his resignation today. That will probably come this week. In the meantime, we need an outside investigation and full disclosure of records of prisoner complaints against the DOC. Why assume that the cages were the only means of punishing unruly prisoners? And why assume it would only happen once or twice?

Whether or not a punishment is "cruel and unusual" under the 8th Amendment is gauged in part by whether or not it "comports with human dignity". What exactly that means is open to debate - not even the Supreme Court has reached consensus about that - but boiling prostitutes alive was out of practice before the Bill of Rights was even written. I hope that most people would agree we've evolved - morally, as a society - beyond criminalizing, caging and killing "deviant" women and the mentally ill, which is what it comes down to. Now we just have to put that standard into practice. If our state lawmakers don't take advantage of this moment to lead criminal law reform, then they'd better at least learn to follow. The forces united today to pay respect to Marcia Powell could be much more formidable tomorrow, and will be armed with an agenda for change.

More from the Official Book of Life

Below is a link to the latest article (AZ Republic) investigating Marcia's life, relying largely on information from her criminal records.

Inmate Made Impact In Death

Latest from the Phoenix New Times

Thank you, Stephen Lemons, for staying on top of the latest news about Marcia Powell - and for trying to get to the bottom of it. I've learned to check out the Phoenix New Times first for my news on the issues involved in Marcia's death.

In this column Lemons explains the significance of the county serving as fiduciary and guardian for Marcia. An interview with a cell mate also reveals the vibrant side of Marcia we didn't know.

Perhaps no one better exposes the many manifestations of the prison industrial complex than homeless mentally ill drug-addicted prostitutes, particularly those with developmental disabilities and HIV who are also pregnant. From inadequate access to prenatal care, income supports, intensive community-based treatment and case management, and affordable housing to frequent institutionalization in jails, psychiatric hospitals, and homeless shelters, they do the route, stopping in at emergency rooms and free clinics from time to time. They are adjudicated as abusive parents before they even give birth. Explicit agreements are reached between outpatient service providers and criminal justice officials - social workers, probation agents and judges - that such women might be better off in jail for awhile if no appropriate treatment settings existed that would help them "stay safe". I know, because I have been party to such discussions, not always coming down on the side of individual liberties.

I suspect that a map of Marcia Powell's life could likewise tell a lot about where our foster care, mental health, and criminal justice realities fall short of their promises. We pour just enough money into community mental health here to provide contract agencies like Magellan (and Value Options before them) with considerable profits, but never enough to filter down to keeping people like Marcia from ending up in prison for minor offenses.

Or perhaps its simply that our contracts with major mental health service providers don't prioritize reducing legal system involvement quite so much as they prioritize reducing psychiatric hospital days - a near-universal practice which simply pushes more people with serious mental illness out of treatment settings and into criminal courts where they don't eat up all the corporate profits - the cost of warehousing them comes out of someone else's budget instead. As a society we'll allocate billions to militarize our police and refine ways of legally torturing and punishing people, but we don't see public health care and programs addressing economic inequality as both economically sustainable and politically desirable.

I don't know how much longer we can afford to ignore the truth - that fighting poverty and hunger will do far more to bring down crime than will fighting the poor and the hungry. In the end it is not our public programs that are unsustainable, it is our banking system and the "free market" - and war on several fronts - that has been consuming public resources.

If we took those funds and invested them with a goal of building communities without cages, we'd see very different things prioritized. Education. Universal health care. Affordable, supported housing. Treatment programs for people who are dually diagnosed. Minimum income guarantees for the disabled, the unemployed, and the unemployable. Strong unions for workers so they can bring home a living wage. Adequate food for growing children and impoverished seniors. An emphasis on doing outreach to assure that people in the community are getting their needs met, rather than opening up an office and waiting for people to come in.

Deconstructing the prison industrial complex and interpreting its implications for the voting public isn't easy. Being "tough on crime" is a simple jingle which still sells (crime is still code for people of color - increasingly so for latino immigrants). Yet the evidence is overwhelming that the prison industrial complex sucks the life out of communities that feed it bodies as well as those that feed it guards and public resources. Just how this happens and what it has to do with globalization is explained most thoroughly by Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore in "Golden Gulag", and most concisely in editor Lois Ahrens' "The Real Cost of Prisons Comix".

Prison abolition, then, is central, not peripheral to the larger dialogue on global justice because it involves not just tearing down prison walls, but also building up the kinds of communities that can respond more directly and immediately to the needs of its citizens than can the state, seeking to prevent trauma where possible, rather than simply bracing for it as if this institutionalized cycle of violence will never be broken.

Friday, May 29, 2009


This is what it means to be alone, from the American Friends Service Committee.

Just Listening

If I've seemed unusually quiet the past few days, it's because I've been trying to listen, processing what different people have had to say in the past week about Marcia's death and where we might go from here.

I'm still trying to map the terrain out here; there's so much I don't know, from who runs the community center around the corner to just what an abolitionist would do to keep society safe from cannibalistic pedophiles and corporate sociopaths. I'm still not sure how to answer that, though the INCITE! Anthology has a really good piece on reconciling anti-violence work with abolition work, written along with folks at Critical Resistance.

A number of people have been touched to some degree by this tragedy. Even in chat rooms where people are a little more free to be cruel, the majority have expressed some sense of injustice at Marcia's death. What concerns me about the tone of it, though, is that most of those also express the expectation that even this incident won't result in substantial reform.

I've heard the same thing from politicians, journalists and seasoned advocates here as well. The struggle has gone on a long time; I'm sure it gets discouraging. When I look at the movement, though, I can't help but believe that another world is possible. This past week, in the course of developing this blog, I've dropped in on abolition projects and radical scholars, discovered new sites for prisoner artwork and writings, and taken comfort in the compassionate response of the peace and justice community to the life and death of Marcia Powell. Local people working on prison reform and abolition have come more clearly into view across disciplines and sectors of the community. I have no worries that Marcia's death will be swept under the rug with people like them around. They won't let it happen.

More importantly, perhaps, people ordinarily not concerned with prison conditions have taken notice and taken stands against cages and excessive sentencing. Politicians are trying to articulate some of the systemic flaws that led to Marcia's criminalization instead of to community treatment. Mainstream media outlets are publicizing the details of Marcia's memorial service, suggesting that her death is news that a broader segment of the community might be interested in. Today the AZ Department of Corrections formally suspended use of the uncovered outdoor cells. I'm not sure how encouraging the news is that they'll be "retrofitting" them with roofs and water instead - I have a visceral reaction to the use of cages at all. But it's a start. I don't know what took them so long.

None of this is to say that I think we're on the brink of radical systemic change. And I'm well aware that some progressive agendas still tend to accommodate oppressive institutions, putting off the day when real transformation can finally be brought about. I hate the idea of making inhumane systems function "better" when they simply need to be eliminated. But we also can't just leave people to die while trying to overthrow the carceral regime.

Pulling the Plug

Another one from the Phoenix New Times: Medical Examiner Holds Remains as Fiduciary Seeks Next of Kin.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Phoenix Anarchists

I don't know much about anarchists, except that they seem to be disproportionately persecuted and prosecuted as terrorists, and they look after their political prisoners. So, naturally I sought them out tonight to make sure they knew about Marcia's memorial service. I sat in on the meeting of the Phoenix Anarchists at Tempe's Daley Park. They were already up on the latest news about her memorial service and what had happened. They sound committed to a sustained campaign of tearing down these cages, though I shouldn't speak for them. It just seems like that's kind of what they've been working on all along anyway - tearing down cages.

So, I think I'm going to try to hang with them for awhile - compiling information about the PIC in Arizona, maybe putting together some flyers and zines, tabling at First Friday, and throwing in on whatever else gets put together. I have a lot to learn from the work that anarchists have already done on prison abolition. Thanks to you all for making me feel welcome tonight. Somehow I knew I'd find people there who cared.

The Indigenous Xicano

Am beginning to find the community blogs where people are talking abut Marcia, this being one of them...more later.

Memorial Service and donations info.

I just came across this post in the Phoenix New Times by the Feathered Bastard(?), Stephen Lemons. A number of activists and community members are organizing a memorial service for Marcia, to be held this Saturday, May 30, at noon at Encanto Community Church, 2710 North 7th Avenue. People wanting to help defray the cost of Marcia's cremation or support some awesome advocacy work can send donations to Middle Ground Prison Reform. Please mark any donations with a note indicating "for Marcia Powell".

Phoenix New Times would be worth checking out for their other articles about Marcia as well. Yeah, no kidding. Check them out here. They dug up some interesting stuff about ADC Director (interim director?) Ryan's Abu Ghraib connections, and are none too subtle implying he crossed a line by pulling Marcia's plug when he did. I always wonder if we would be so quick to do that to someone who's life had some kind of redeeming value, in the eyes of the market. Once on life support she could have vegetated for years. Or she could have recovered...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

AZ Rep. David Bradley

What follows is AZ State Representative David Bradley’s column from the Arizona Daily Star, as published this morning. I couldn’t establish a simple link to it, so with his blessing I’m reposting in its entirety, without comment for now. I’ve been trying to post this into my blog all day: finally just had to rewrite it by hand, but felt it was worth it. If nothing else, it’s important to step into Marcia’s cage and consider how she got there, with an eye on what needs to change - and who we might be lobbying to change it. I’ll have more thoughts on all this tomorrow once I’ve had some sleep.

Inmate Death Highlights Need for Prison Changes.
David Bradley. AZ Daily Star. May 27, 2009.

I am in the chain link cage where Marcia Powell, inmate 109416, spent the last moments of her conscious life. The Corrections Department director and I close the gate behind us. We both recognize that it is not likely that there will be any acceptable explanation for this catastrophe.

A 48-year old, seriously mentally ill, mentally disabled, drug-addicted woman imprisoned for prostitution is left outdoors in the heat of the afternoon. In a metal cage with no shade and no water, less than 20 feet from an enclosed staffed guard post, she dies.

Given those facts it would be simple to rage against the prison system and those who run it.The department is conducting an investigation on the sequence of events leading up to her death. I met the staff who knew Powell; they are shaken to the core. The investigation will not be a whitewash.

That the sun’s heat would take her life is perhaps ironic. Powell’s mind was on fire for years; her impaired mental capacity was kindling for abuse. Her brain was inflamed by mental illness and charred by drug abuse.

One way or another, on that fateful day, Powell became invisible. Standing in the cage, I pictured her curled up on the hot cement, ending a 48-year journey, as Carl Sandburg might note, “old before she was young.”

Did life at least begin cradled fondly in someone’s arms? I wonder. Outside her contacts with the legal system, it appears that Powell spent the bulk of her life, even when in the arms of johns who rented her body, just as she died, invisible.

Powell’s death both reflects and portends. It is a reflection of how a person can slip through numerous hands and agencies designed to help her. It is portentous of deficits in a prison system that cannot bear much more stress. The prison staff is, by and large, a dedicated group of professionals who are facing enormous odds.

That someone with Powell’s profile was sent to prison speaks of numerous shortcomings in a justice system that in many cases can barely be seen as just. It is only one story of among 40,000, the number of state prisoners, nearly 1% of Arizona's adult population.

The front door to the prison system is wide open, in part the result of mandatory sentencing and limited funding for more effective alternatives to incarceration. It is fueled by a legislative philosophy that values punishment over rehabilitation. Inmates leak out the back door ill-prepared for the challenges of assuming the role of productive citizen.

If prisons are supposed to be harsh places, mission accomplished. Powell’s prison is a miserable place. In about 400 cubic feet, thee women share a dingy cell that has a toilet and a sink. The aging swamp cooling system is in constant need of repair. Dining and meeting rooms are now dorms crammed with beds. Tent dorms are coveted placements. I suspect Powell often was not a pleasant person to be around, little wonder.

Nevertheless, inmate 109416’s death diminishes all of us. Outside the cage I am hopeful that Powell’s passing can be a catalyst for change and a wake up call to the state legislature. It is not likely.

"Putting the Golden Rule Into Action."

FYI: Governor Jan Brewer is giving the keynote speech at the Human Services Fair Thursday, May 28 at 3pm. It is at the AZ State Fairgrounds Exhibit Building, 1826 West McDowell Road.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Light in us All

This is the photo that the Department of Corrections had posted on their website in Marcia's record at the time of her death, which was so widely circulated in the press. She appears frightened, traumatized, disheveled, and likely very depressed. It may evoke pity - and apparently contempt among some - but it doesn't invite empathy, or leave open the possibility for most that Marcia could have just as easily been their mother, daughter, sister, or friend.

I've been reading chats about her today that appear to be written by people too ashamed of their comments to use their real names. Yet many seem to be enough at home with eachother in their chat rooms that they don't hesitate to ridicule a dead woman for falling victim to circumstances few of us could have endured for 48 years. I haven't blogged all day just because I've been so sick from what I've read.

This photo below, now on the ADC website (but not in the press), appears to be from several years earlier, before decades of addiction, poverty, and mental illness began to take their toll. Perhaps had the press used this photo, fewer people would be so quick to speak about her as if she were trash, or of less significance than a dog. She was once a vibrant woman whose smile belied the trauma she'd already endured. She was a living soul, and in both images, if we look beyond what we've been told, it's not that hard to see the light of God in her, as the Quakers are fond of saying.

The Light of God.

I don't consider myself religious, but I do think that life is sacred and the Mystery that causes our hearts to beat, our faces to smile, our arms to hug, our stomachs to turn, our eyes to tear, our minds to open or close, our souls to grieve, and the deepest part of our being to long to be better than we are is not a Power to take lightly. Whether or not her life was worth saving shouldn't even be up for debate. How we respond to this tragedy ultimately says nothing about Marcia; it says everything about what kind of people - what kind of community- we are.

Fortunately not everyone is so callous or cruel - I know there are folks out there who would do something if they could to set justice right for Marica and all those who struggle each day just to survive. There's actually a lot we can do; it's worth repeating.

Contact elected officials and demand an independent inquiry.

Write letters to the editor expressing your outrage and sadness over her death - don't bury it in a chat or a blog.

Organize or attend a vigil or memorial with members of your community. Vigils for prisoners who died at the hands of the state give permission to the frightened families of other prisoners to open up to their neighbors, speak about their experience, and stop living in shame.

Make a donation in Marcia's memory to a prisoner support or a prison abolition or reform program.

Let the Department of Corrections know that some of us expect prisoners to be treated better than that - we want them to come out healthier and saner than when they went in, not more disturbed or despairing. We need them at their best if they're going to come home to our neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. Otherwise, what's the point of putting them away in the first place?

And don't bother arguing with those who are just entertained by your concern. They aren't likely to abandon their bigotry, especially if it's the only thing that makes them feel superior to others. Talk instead to open minds and compassionate souls who just need a little encouragement to take constructive action - to be the change.

Finally, we must all insist that they tear down those cages in the sun.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lesson not Learned

Came across an article in the July 2002 Legal Eye Newsletter for the Nursing Profession about a Michigan psychiatric patient who died of heat stroke a few years back. In Terrance v. Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital, "nursing care was so substandard that it went beyond negligence", meeting the standard for "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs", which violated the patient's 8th and 14th amendment constitutional rights. The head nurse got the blame, but there were systemic, structural things in place (and out of place) that contributed to this man's early demise. I've been to Northville; sadly this is no surprise.

In their ruling on the case the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said: "Nurses caring for psychiatric patients should know that excessive heat can cause serious medical complications for patients on psychotropic medications like Haldol, Cogentin, and Lithium...close, competent, and vigilant nursing observation of these patients is always essential"(cited in the Legal Eye Newsletter in big, bold print). The above-mentioned meds are often used in the treatment of manic depression, the illness Marcia was diagnosed with and apparently being treated for.

If the Perryville complex doesn't have medical staff responsible for the 24/7 monitoring of people on psychiatric medications, it should be shut down immediately.

The Scoop from Montini

Shortly after my last post I found Ed Montini's column today in the AZ Republic, a paper I otherwise seldom read. It's useful insofar as he filled in some blanks about Marcia's history, pointed to some of the failures in our system, and articulated outrage that our community expressed more distress and anger about the death of a police dog at Perryville (scroll halfway down the linked page for Rik's story) under similar environmental conditions than about Marcia Powell's life or death.

I have other thoughts on the language of the article, but am for the most part relieved to see it, and to see how many writers responded with empathy and outrage, rather than the usual absurd flippant remarks (don't even bother looking at the Fox News reader comments...I just needed to see who was out there). I'd echo Montini's call for citizens to contact the Governor and demand an independent investigation. Contact your legislators too - especially if they're Republicans.

A final note on Montini's comments: According to Donna Leone Hamm of Middle Ground Prison Reform, she tried to talk to the press and ADC in 2007 about the practice of caging prisoners outside - no one was interested because no one had yet died (though such deaths have occurred in other prisons). Let's make sure that Marcia counts as someone whose life was at least as important as Rik the dog's.

Her Name was Marcia

Couldn't really sleep well; was back up at my computer by 4am researching AZ prisons, legislative committees, possible community allies. Emailed the State Alliance for the Mentally Ill last night to see what their response is/will be to Marcia's death and the use of outdoor cages for inmates on medications that magnify the deadly effects of the AZ sun and desert heat. They could have given her gallons of water and she still would have died.

In the course of this leg of research I found another picture of Marcia, located in her on-line ADC profile. Her full name is Marcia J. Powell, born 09/25/1960. She looks like she's laughing, and still has all her front teeth - her humanity is much more accessible with this one than the photo all the news outlets used. Am guessing it was from her previous incarceration. It appears as if her first incarceration with the ADC was in 2002, but the information about her history is sparse.

According to her prisoner info sheet, Marcia was sentenced for prostitution with an "enhancement"related to dangerousness, I believe - exactly what that is I'll have to find out. I suspect it has to do with being a repeat offender and not abiding by expectations of the terms of her last release ( She was in trouble quite a bit in January - disciplined 11 times that month for lying, disobeying orders, obstructing officers, even once for stealing. I would imagine she wasn't the model prisoner. She has a history of "absconding" while under state supervision - that appears to mean going AWOL from probation, parole, or other community supervision. I'd love to know just what her community release conditions and environment were like when that occurred. Any investigative journalists out there?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Until Every Desert Cage is Gone

I hope you found your way here because you share a desire to abolish the prison industrial complex, or are at least curious about what prison abolition is. It took me a number of months of research and feedback from a couple of professors who are abolitionists to figure out what the movement was about, and to clarify what abolition meant to me.

I fell into this first through taking a class on capital punishment, taught by a former judge who had once helped author Arizona's post-Furman death penalty statutes. The weight of the evidence that capital punishment was so often applied in a racist, classist way (which not surprisingly catches the innocent) ultimately compelled him to change his position on the death penalty - something I found out only after the semester was over, as he didn't want to sway students by articulating his own position. He did a good job of just presenting evidence for both sides of the argument. Presenting both sides is not my intent here, however.

I understand the impulse for vengeance and retribution, and have heard the case that state executions still serve as a deterrent to potential murderers, but I don't know how any thoughtful American could examine the institution of capital punishment - I mean, really dig into Supreme Court cases (including dissents) and law journals - and not commit themselves to ending it.

At the same time I was getting deeper into my research (which focused primarily on the death penalty and the Bible Belt) I was taking a class on Social Movements and another class on Wealth Distribution and Inequality. From these I learned more about race and class in the broader criminal justice system, COINTELPro, political prisoners, and the PIC Abolition Movement. I not only read work by abolitionists such as Angela Davis, Joy James, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, but I also read some of the works that seemed to originally radicalize some of them.

I considered whether or not I was really an abolitionist myself, or just a reformer. That question got into some deeply held beliefs and buried traumas that were necessary to confront before I could answer it. Bottom line, after I did all my research, is that the question I had to ask myself was whether I was just another white liberal who didn't condone (or actively work against) racism or classism, or if I was an anti-racist who fought against it in all its forms - beginning with racism's manifestation in me.

I came out an abolitionist, and signed up for a class on Prison Social Movements.

Most of us can agree, I think, that prisons are an extraordinarily expensive way to deal with manifestations of drug addiction, the consequences of poverty, and the fear of people who act on political or religious beliefs outside of the "mainstream" (white middle-class America). I suspect that those of us who abstain from "criminal activity" do so not because of what the state might do to us, but because we grew up believing it was morally wrong to steal, kill, cheat, and so on. Christian or not, most of us have some version of the Golden Rule in our conscience, and we strive to get through life without hurting others - an impossible task, given all the levels of hurt there are. But we try.

When one's ethical standards are compromised by trauma, mental illness, addiction, grief, desperate economic conditions, and fear we collectively respond with police to remove that person from our presence, instead of confronting them with a community norm on non-violence and proceed to exemplify it by helping them find other ways of meeting their needs, instead of subjecting them to the terrifying potentials of state violence.

For example, Marcia Powell, a 48 year old mother diagnosed with manic depression and treated with psychotropic drugs was sentenced to 27 months in prison for prostitution. 27 months. That seems extreme, even with prior offenses and a history of addiction. What actually happened to her was worse.

I never would have known about Marcia and her prison sentence except that she died this week after 4 hours in an outdoor, unshaded chain-link cage (like a dog pen) in midday desert heat. AZ corrections officials assert that the cage was solely being used as a temporary holding place for prisoners being transferred, implying that her involvement in a disturbance just necessitated segregation, perhaps for her own protection - and explicitly denying that she was caged under the Arizona sun as a form of discipline. According to a volunteer there, prisoners complain that punishment is precisely what the cages are used for.

Arizona's prison policies actually allow the use of such outdoor cages (though not for discipline), so long as prisoners are provided water (shade is not required) and stay out no longer than 2 hours. Ultimately she died within 20 feet - within eyesight - of the air conditioned prison guards responsible for monitoring her through their window.

One of the linked articles did note that though she was diagnosed bi-polar she was on medications "used to treat schizophrenia". There's often an overlap of symptoms and treatment regimens for those illnesses. In any event, such medications (psychotropics) almost always warn of an elevated risk of heat stroke. People being treated with these drugs shouldn't even be left in the sun for two hours. The fact that the Perryville prison complex incarcerates a number of folks with mental illness suggests medical malpractice on the part of a prescribing physician if he/she failed to advise against caging prisoners in the sun. This is basic pharmacy 101 - the link I provided to that info isn't even a medical site.

My first response to Marcia's death was outrage - I wanted those responsible from the guards on up to be prosecuted and punished for their "reckless disregard" for human life. I wanted them imprisoned for at least the 46 years that the leader of a local burglary ring got for stealing rich people's possessions (so far as I know he never assaulted them). Then I thought, if a new way of responding to violence doesn't come out of this, then what will it take for me to really change? What would justice for Marcia look like? And what would it mean to those responsible for her death and their families? And would it keep this from happening again?

Justice doesn't begin and end with prosecution and punishment. As convenient as it may be to see this incident as an aberration - like we thought Abu Ghraib was, until more evidence of torture emerged - it's not uncommon. And it's not all about the guards or prison administrators, I figured; it's about us, too.

What is it we do as a society that reduces those we select for removal, isolation, and confinement to subhuman status in the eyes of their keepers, and the minds of the rest of us. Every news article about this woman showed her dissheveled, terrified mug shot, described her troubled life, identified that her kids (if they acknowledged her motherhood at all) are "lost" in the foster care system - their abandonment is presented almost as another of her long list of crimes, which presumably justify her incarceration and being subject to abuse.

Marcia's picture exposes her fear, poverty, confusion, despair, shame, and a host of missing teeth suggesting a history of victimization. Her eyes are windows to a soul who looks as if she's been trapped behind bars, walls, and locked doors most of her life; never really free - never really safe - whether on the inside or out. She sure wasn't free and safe selling herself for survival.

Sadly, we never did right by people with severe mental illness even before de-institutionalization. 40 years ago Marcia would have probably been getting neglected or abused in a state psychiatric facility instead of a prison. Maybe she was. We can learn from that era of de-institutionalization - if we don't do abolition right, then deviant and desperate people just go from one oppressive institution to another. That's called transinstitutionalization. We don't want to go back to what used to be called psychiatric hospitals.

So I asked myself what I could do to help get justice for Marcia, and for all those other folks - people's moms and dads and kids and siblings locked away - who suffer and die in the custody of the state. Rally outside the prison with mental health activists? Lobby local legislators on jail alternatives for the mentally ill? Demand the prosecution and incarceration of those responsible, so that they might know the feelings of helplessness, humiliation and dehumanization prisoners endure? So that they might be raped, beaten, drugged, murdered or - for their own protection - placed in solitary confinement for years and go mad?

In other words, does going from one bad option to another really set people free? And does inflicting the same kind of harm on Marcia's killers that the PIC inflicted on her constitute justice? And does not invoking the full force of the PIC against DOC employees mean that they're "getting away" with her murder? Won't it embolden other corrections officers and cops if there's no criminal charges filed for their extreme indifference to human life?

Or is there something, perhaps, that the community can do to find out how this happened, challenge the policies of the department of corrections, and hold the individuals involved responsible for coming up with solutions - alternatives to putting people in cages - and for pouring their blood, sweat and tears into making prison alternatives work. "Sentencing" them to the years of hard labor it takes to restore run down housing so people like Marcia can live in it is hardly typical "community service", because it's not just about hammers and nails - it's about zoning ordinances and business opposition and people worried about more crime and neighborhood resources being inadequate to support high needs individuals - whether they're 'criminals' or ordinary senior citizens.

Going through something like siting a supported housing program (which can take years of 60-hour work weeks) can change a person in a fundamentally more positive way than rotting in prison for manslaughter. It forces one to make personal sacrifices, to take a stand for social justice, and to interact with other social justice activists. That kind of work sure changed me. And I think it would be a better way to make amends to the community than putting Marcia's killers in prison. It's too late for them to make amends to her.

If they succeed, we will all be the better off for it, and they will have perhaps evolved beyond the point where they might abuse power like that again. By thinking outside the narrow confines of what we've been told is justice, we could not only eliminate the use of these cages and promote systemic life-saving reforms, but we could use the need for 'offenders' to make restitution and some kind of reconciliation by creating more safe places for the vulnerable people in our communities. Prison sentences may satisfy a certain amount of vengeance and make us think we're safe, but they were never designed to allow for restitution and reconciliation (even when judges order restitution, prisoners make pennies a day - they can't support their own children, much less compensate for the loss of someone's property, freedom, limb, or life.)

Before I heard about Marcia I had learned that there are impoverished city blocks in sections of New York on which the state spends 1 million dollars a year on keeping residents from those neighborhoods in prison. New York is but one state that spends more on incarcerating people of color than it does on educating them. I wondered what that money could do if invested directly in the community, and how things would look if the community took direct responsibility for creating alternatives to "criminal justice", like Neighborhood Watch groups that serve not to catch or surveille potential criminals, but that instead serve as back-up support for neighbors who have no food, families facing foreclosure, youth exploited by the drug and alcohol industries, former prisoners shut out of work and educational opportunities, latch-key children, and all those most vulnerable to becoming victims of both interpersonal and state violence - the young, the old, the homeless, the disabled, the poor, women, and people of color.

Abolition isn't just about closing prisons and turning molesters and murders out on the streets - I too would have a problem with that. It's about local control over public funds that improve public safety, implement options for reconciliation, restitution, and treatment for those who harm others, assure that basic needs (housing, food, safety, health care, etc.) for community members are met, educate all ages on non-violent conflict resolution approaches, and transform our seige mentality about crime into an understanding of the complexities of human needs and behavior and an earnest sense of responsibility to eradicate the physical, social, and ideological structures that perpetuate both individual and state violence in American society.

At least that's what PIC abolition means to me right now. I still have a lot to learn, and am aware I need to be changing my thought patterns and language when referring to parties and institutions affected by or constituting the prison industrial complex. Reading abolitionist literature helps - much of it is quite scholarly and sound. Critical Resistance (see links) has been a fabulous resource for developing an abolitionist consciousness and concrete tools. Many of the "books to prisoners" projects are organized by anarchists and other abolitionists, rather than libraries, and my correspondence with some of these groups has been quite eye-opening. I'm considering trying to form such a collective here in Tempe (hence my email, 'radicalreads'), which would serve not only as a mechanism for filling book requests from prisoners, but also as a way of gathering with like-minded people over our shared humanity with prisoners to figure out how our community can stop depending so much on cops with guns locking scary people up in cages.

So, if this is your calling too, I'd love to hear from you - my email is at the top of the page. In the meantime, I'll try to keep current on posts about Marcia Powell's life and death and where we go from here.