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

Monday, June 29, 2009

Dear Director Ryan;

My name is Peggy Plews. We met briefly at Marcia Powell's service last night at Shadow Rock; I believe I may have interrupted you as you were contemplating a prayer. My apologies if that was the case.

I appreciate that you took a minute to speak with me about the status of the investigation into Marcia's death, and current polices on the use of outdoor desert cages for containing human beings. You didn't have to do so. I realize that you have been in frequent communication with Donna Hamm of Middle Ground Prison Reform, and that her organization has some standing in the state as a voice for prisoner rights. I claim no such standing. I'm just a concerned citizen who believes that what happens in your prisons is as much our collective responsibility as it is yours.

I should preface the rest of this letter with an explanation that I am not a prison reformer wanting a seat at the table. I am a prison abolitionist. It is my explicit goal to help expose and dismantle the prison industrial complex that you have invested your career in. That is, of course, an extremely complex and ambitious undertaking; I am not so naive as to think that such a task can be accomplished simply by unlocking jailhouse doors, decriminalizing drugs, or gaining a better understanding of how our society produces so many sociopaths. There are indeed vicious people among us, and we will have to find some way to prevent them from hurting others. Too many are allowed to run amok as it is, occupying positions of considerable power and prestige - some, I would argue, in law enforcement and the State House. In any event, prison abolition requires creative problem-solving and massive social change, but there is sound scholarship and theory underlying the movement, and I believe the effort is worth it.

Still, I remain deeply troubled by what happened to Marcia, and by some of the things I've learned about Arizona's prisons since then - particularly Perryville. I cannot just turn and walk away, content to work on the bigger picture while so many people continue to suffer day to day. Besides, I could just as easily be behind bars as some of them. Hence my attempt to engage in dialogue with you.

You would have every reason not to communicate further with me. I am pointed and can be antagonistic, though I am hardly threatening. I have no political power and am of no consequence to this legislature, particularly as long as I live in a district represented by Democrats. I don't write on behalf of a group, constituency, or organization. Still, I do vote and pay taxes, and theoretically when the government makes the laws, prioritizes state funding, and employs professionals such as yourself to administer institutions in accordance with our community's values, it does so as a representative of the people. I am one of the people. Since no one seems to be representing my voice - not even those I voted for - I feel obliged to exercise it myself. Whether you bother to listen or not is entirely your prerogative.

I, myself, anticipate that we will have to contend with each other somehow through the years, so long as we both remain here - and I'd rather have a dialogue with words than a battle involving direct actions and reactions that could escalate and result in my own incarceration. That may well be awaiting me further down the road, as this legislature continues to pass laws that I believe are unconscionable, such as those which call for the prosecution and lengthy imprisonment of humanitarians. Those in power today are small, desperate people who must know they are slowly losing control. It is not the illegal immigrants so much as it's the citizens like me who frighten them most. I expect that it will get worse for some of us before it gets any better.

I would imagine that a prison full of "criminals" poses enough of a challenge. Fill it up with community organizers, though, and you'll be in for real trouble. It is not my desire to be one of those progressive prisoners, however. I'm deeply concerned about the safety and welfare of the people you incarcerate - and even that of their keepers, such as the two Perryville COs who recently suicided - but the focus of my activism will be much more on the electorate than on you. I want to depopulate the prisons, not make them nice places for more people to be packed into.

I suspect that some of the things on our wish lists may overlap: like reducing recidivism, alleviating pressure on overcrowded facilities, not privatizing Death Row, and allowing for the compassionate release of seriously, chronically, or terminally ill non-violent offenders whose incarceration and care must consume a good portion of your budget. I'll let Middle Ground have the lead on those issues, however. My role, for the most part, will be to seek greater transparency in your department's operations, leverage funding for community-based alternatives to incarceration, educate the electorate on the toxic effect that the carceral regime has on our economy, our social structures and our humanity, and stand by those who challenge the authority of draconian laws and their enforcers.

My methods are non-violent and generally not even criminal, but I realize that has not protected peace and justice activists from infiltration, entrapment, and prosecution under questionable laws before. So, on the outside chance that I should ever end up in the custody of your department, I wanted to clarify a few lingering concerns I have.

Like the use of those cages.

I read the policy you referred me to - and am posting the link to it on my website for others to evaluate themselves. I remain disturbed by the appearance that these cages simply function to compensate for inadequate staffing to provide supervision, and for overcrowded conditions which have robbed the women in particular of indoor space.

Shade, misters, and a continuous water supply are all improvements, but speaking as a woman on medications which predispose me to heatstroke, I would be nonetheless concerned that as a prisoner I might end up in dire jeopardy - not so much due to the criminal negligence of individual guards as due to the risks inherent in institutional policies that assume staff can remain attentive to those they place in potentially life-threatening settings throughout the course of the day. I have seen too many institutionalized people die that way. I would think that over the course of your career you have as well.

Furthermore, it is extensively articulated throughout the prisoner and family/friends community that despite policy prohibiting the use of these cages as punishment, they have long been used precisely for that purpose, which is extremely difficult for a prisoner to prove or obtain remedy for. Who, in fact, is the prisoner supposed to trust to address their grievances fairly to if their access to the outside world is so limited, and if the practices which are brutalizing them are couched in terms of official policy?

These cages have been complained about on numerous occasions in the past, and it took a severely impaired woman's highly publicized death - and Governor Brewer's embarrassment - for anyone to respond. You could attribute that to the failings of previous administrations and chart a new course from here. My expectation, however, is that rather than facilitating an atmosphere of greater transparency and prisoner/community interaction in the future around the problems Marcia's death made visible, you will work to assure that the release of information is much better controlled than it was in this instance. That possibility troubles me.

Please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

Ever since Marcia's death red flags have been flying at Perryville. What has the department done to the women who set their mattresses on fire in organized protest? It is my understanding that they are in administrative segregation now (commonly referred to as being put into the hole), and may only receive legal assistance if charged in criminal court; they are on their own defending themselves in internal disciplinary proceedings, even though the outcome could seriously affect the kind and length of time they end up doing in the long run.

What were they so distressed or agitated about that they would risk arson charges or worse in order to get outside attention directed at your prison? Would you allow a journalist in to speak with them? Would you allow someone in to interview them who researches women's resistance in prisons? Is Perryville an institution that needs to be shrouded in secrecy in order to continue to function? Or is it a place where human rights and needs are respected enough that you would have no hesitation about allowing prisoners to air their grievances openly and without fear of retaliation?

Yes, retaliation. That's part of the culture you are now responsible for too. Administrative and guard retaliation even scares their parents into silence. Guards who blow the whistle are also at considerable risk, or at least perceive they are. I may even be setting myself up for trouble; I just probably won't get hurt as badly as anyone else if I get pushed off this particular limb, as I don't have far to fall.

I'm sure that the reliance on the prison system as the default place to contain the mentally ill and drug addicted among us presents you with some concerns that I share. As the president of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill back in Ann Arbor I worked on the local level to divert non-violent offenders with mental illness from the criminal justice system into community-based settings, like supported housing. The county sheriff, the D.A., district judges, human service providers, and even left-wing radicals worked together to make this possible. This could have worked for Marcia had this state prioritized its spending in such a way. I do not think that you are so cold as to have been untouched by how she died, and therefore suspect that you might endorse a program which could have saved her life.

As the head of the Department of Corrections, you are in a uniquely authoritative position to speak to the human and economic costs of warehousing the mentally ill in prison versus the investment necessary to keep them safe in the community. Is there something that prevents you from embarking on an aggressive campaign to educate the public and the legislature on this matter?

That question applies equally to the elderly and critically ill population of prisoners. Your department will never be funded to adequately care for them in prison - which is where criminals go, and this state is divided on whether or not they even deserve adequate nutrition, much less essential health care. But you could help make it possible for the community to take responsibility for their care out here.

Additionally, as a woman whose life trajectory nearly paralleled Marcia's for a time, I'd like to know - should I ever end up in your custody - how you would know whether or not I was safe under your policies and in the hands of your employees. Would you ever come ask me or other prisoners about our treatment? Or would you simply monitor facilities through quarterly reports delivered to your office? Would you recognize that in your care, because of my disability, the chances that I would suffer neglect, abuse or death are higher than those of other women there? Would you allow as a matter of policy an outside entity - such as the American Friends Service Committee - to come into the prison to see me regularly, to review my treatment, to hear my grievances, to check on my health?

Or would I - as Marcia was - essentially be at the mercy of whomever happened to be on duty, writing me up on violations for the symptoms of my illness, and drawing out my sentence if I questioned their treatment of myself or my fellow prisoners? As one of 40,000 prisoners across this state, I don't imagine I would even show up on your radar unless it hit the papers that you killed me. And even then, it appears, all you would know about me is what is written in my criminal record. There are lifers out at Perryville who knew far more about Marcia's essential nature than you or your staff did.

I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss these concerns with you in person, or at least to receive a written reply that I can then share with the rest of those who - like me - lack the necessary status to rub elbows with you or the governor or our legislators. That means, you should know, that unless I explicitly tell you otherwise, I would be posting any written reply to this letter on my website, just as I am posting this letter to you.

Regardless of your response (or a lack thereof) I will proceed to take a more active role in educating and organizing the community to dismantle your regime. I just want to give you a reasonable chance to articulate your own position on these issues, lest I paint you and the department in an unfair light, as you may feel I have done already and would continue to do regardless.

No matter how fair I am, frankly, I don't think the light I paint the ADC in will be ever be flattering. Perhaps you have overwhelming evidence that would persuade me otherwise, but based on what I know I'm fairly convinced that the prison industrial complex in its totality functions as a tool of social repression used to divide the classes while employing racism, sexism, and a whole range of prejudices in order to perpetuate the status quo - protecting the positions of those already in power, themselves alone able to define what constitutes "crime", and what constitutes "justice". So long as the law is made by the few and punishment is arbitrarily doled out to the many, even those who think they are free among us live in chains.

I do realize I may be making a mistake by writing to you, especially when I am this deeply moved; my wiser friends would tell me not to make myself known - and certainly not to be offensive - because you are a potentially dangerous man. I have been unable to discern, as of yet (from rumor and limited observation), whether you are more a servant of the public or a knowing perpetrator of injustice, however; you are a particularly hard fellow to read. Perhaps you do what you do in the best interests of humanity. But it is this choice of professions - the violent control and confinement of tens of thousands of people - a number of whom you must know are either harmless or innocent - that gives me pause. I have a dear friend who devoted her life to corrections administration, however, so I haven't completely condemned you as a sadistic character. If I had, I wouldn't bother with writing to you now. I am holding out hope that you could actually be an ally on some matters, or that at the least we don't have to be adversaries.

But that is a very small hope.

Thank you for your time, if you have read this far. I may be provocative, I confess, but my aim is to be emphatic about the scope and gravity of the situation I believe that you - and I - are responsible for. Perhaps no one knows that better than you, except for your prisoners and their loved ones. If you don't speak with me, then I hope you are at least listening to them.


Margaret J. Plews


  1. Thanks for publishing this well-written letter. It gives me hope that more people agree with what I have been thinking, and that they can describe it well. May your words fall on good earth.

  2. Another tragedy in the justice system...

    All deserve human rights.

    Excellent letter... keep going...
    You have a beautiful, caring spirit.

    We are working on Nevada prison conditions... and send us your email with phone, please?

    We have legal education podcasts you may be interested in hearing from a compassionate Arizona attorney...

    Peace and prosperity for all.