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

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"An Invisible Woman is Laid to Rest"

Ed Montini's column for today.

For most of her adult life, 48-year-old Marcia Powell was invisible. Then she died, and slowly came into view.

If you were required in school to read H.G. Wells' science fiction masterpiece "The Invisible Man" you'll recall that the troubled scientist called Griffin formulated a recipe for invisibility that, we learn tragically, wears off after death.

As it turns out, the same holds true in real life.

The diabolical concoction that lead to Marcia Powell's invisibility was a mixture of mental illness, drugs and ignorance. (Ours, not hers.)

Today, At Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix, Powell will be laid to rest. She was a troubled adopted girl when she first ran away from home in California.

She showed early signs of mental illness. But as a young adult with no family – or at least none that wanted any part of her – “treatment” took the form of self medication by way of everything from alcohol to methamphetamine. To pay for it, she became a prostitute.

Mental illness is not a crime. Most of those who suffer from the disease are able to keep it under control and function perfectly well with the help of doctors and prescription drugs.

Powell and many others are not as fortunate.

Left on their own they spiral into homelessness, petty crime or worse.

After offering oral sex to an undercover police officer in exchange for a few dollars Marcia Powell found herself in what has become one of Arizona's largest de facto mental health facilities – state prison.

It wasn't the first time she was behind bars. Or the second. Or the tenth. Powell had been in and out of jail for decades, all of which went unnoticed by you and me. She and those like her roam our streets, alleys, parking lots and city parks in plain view but unseen, shrouded by their delusions and our indifference.

All of which changed for Powell when she was placed in a cage-like outdoor enclosure at the prison in Perryville and left to cook for four hours. Invisible. Forgotten.

It was only after she fell into a coma and died that any of us learned she had been alive.

Even now, as the Department of Corrections investigates what went wrong, it is the manner of her death that concerns us. Not her life.

Ken Heintzelman, pastor at Shadow Rock, told me, “It's unfortunate that it sometimes take a spiritual kick in the pants to make us stop and see what is going on. Maybe through Marcia we can address some of the systematic things that caused this to happen to her. It's more than simply about this one person. It's about what kind of society we want to be.”

The Maricopa County Public Fiduciary's office spent weeks trying to find relatives of Powell. The only family members they found were even less interested in her after death than they had been while she was alive.

So burying Powell fell to some good-hearted local people, including folks at Shadow Rock, at EncantoCommunityChurch, at Hansen's Mortuary and at the fiduciary's office.

Most, like Donna Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, only heard of Powell after she was gone.

While helping to plan Powell's funeral Hamm told me, “We believe that Marcia deserves a little dignity, something she didn't get while alive.”

If all goes according to plan, Powell's cremated remains will be placed in a niche at Shadow Rock sometime around dusk on Sunday.

The church is located south of Thunderbird Road on Eighth Avenue. The desert landscape rises up like a wave behind the building, cresting at the edge of an unending sky. It's an open, airy place. No prison cells. No barbed wire. No cages.

(Column for June 28, 2009, Arizona Republic)

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