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 1, 2009

Maricopa County Jail

No sooner were we celebrating a small victory ending the use of outdoor cages in AZ state prisons then the story hit about Maricopa County Correctional Health Services inadequacies (Read this article!). At least there's already been an inquiry and a number of good recommendations made. The question is why our board of supervisors isn't following them. They've been warned of possible grave consequences to prisoners if they don't. Since 1998, we've had to shell out $13 million for legal fees and claims settlements to families, and we still haven't responded to expert recommendations for getting our health services for prisoners into decent shape. We even lost accreditation by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care last fall.

This one can't be blamed on Sheriff Joe. He may control the jails and therefore the living conditions, but not the budget or operation of Correctional Health Services. It looks like gross negligence on the part of the county administration and supervisors for not funding those services adequately. I guess the question is: who has to die for them to take action?

And who has to care? People are still on hunger strike over the conditions in the county jail, and we aren't all taking the day off of work to go storm the MCSO or Board of Supervisors meetings, though a core group of activists and community members have done so more than once this spring. What does it take for them to be listened to?

The hunger strike is about Arpaio's racial profiling as well as the jail conditions themselves. I can't believe he's so powerful that the Board of Supervisors quake (except Wilcox - she deserves a little credit). Not only is that guy being investigated for civil rights abuses, but he's often featured in the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Hatewatch" blog. History will not look kindly on Arizona for electing him. And for giving him a gun.

Which gets back to the racism issue. In most cities "criminal" is code for "black". Here it's code for "illegal immigrant" (or "Latino"), the worst kind of criminal one can be, short of being a felon. Characterizing the immigrants in jail detention as both "illegal" and "felons" or "facing felony charges" is deceptive. Many - if not most - are in pre-trial holding. What is the "felony" most undocumented immigrants are charged with that makes them such a danger to society that they have to be dressed in pink underwear? Smuggling themselves? That's our legislature's response to illegal immigration?

We originally came up with that law to protect people from human smugglers, not to ensnare them for "conspiring" with one to get them over the border. If threatened with a felony charge for just being here, why would an undocumented immigrant ever go to police for help if their loved one was raped or murdered by a coyote? That's about as brilliant and believable as charging a bunch of Food Not Bombs members as terrorists under the Minnesota version of the PATRIOT Act. That's not what the people intended. Stealing other people's identity so they can work? How lethal is that? Their employers should be paying taxes into their victims' social security accounts.

But calling them both "illegals" and "felons" seems to work to dehumanize people. So, I guess then that neither foreign nationals nor felons have basic human rights guaranteed under the US Constitution? I don't know. The Constitution isn't always right. First it accommodated the enslavement of African Americans, then it explicitly made convicts slaves of the state - so, consequently, more blacks ended up being criminalized after the Civil War. We institutionalized the exploitation and oppression of prisoners because of racism and fear, which is fed by someone else's greed. Not a lot of people know that history.

And then we actually pay to incarcerate them.
I frankly don't think it's worth $45 a day of taxpayer money to lock up a father of three who's doing an honest days' work just because NAFTA obliterated his community's ability to sustain itself. Apparently not everyone shares my sentiments: private prisons are booming in the immigrant detention business, and the legislature wants to give Joe more money to round people up. Even public entities are renting out their extra jail and prison space because someone is always willing to pay.

I know we live in a society which regularly debases human life and dignity. But I think our jails have enough poor people and people of color in them to begin asking if our societal neglect of basic things like health care isn't symptomatic of our institutionalized racism and classism, which we can't sit back and wait for Obama's administration to solve. We treat the poor on the inside the same way we do on the outside - suspiciously, skeptically, and with a tendency to think they have no "right" to complain - they're lucky we're as generous as we are.

I don't think they're lucky, of course. The poor, free and in chains, are totally vulnerable to violence from law enforcement officers and mobs alike. Sometimes the mob is there to liberate them, but most of the time they're there with a rope. I think we're just about to kill another prisoner through negligence, punitive policies, and poor management; the county Board of Supervisors has been duly advised on how to avoid such tragedies as Marcia Powell's. The recommendations are fairly straightforward. With the 1.6 million dollars Arpaio expects to get to round up more day laborers, some of those issues could be remedied. I'm sure the undocumented persons being detained have enough medical needs that federal dollars can be thrown into the mix - how can you detain them if you can't afford to treat them?

I can't imagine that federal standards for medical care to prisoners are all that high; it disturbs me that we aren't even going to try to meet them any more. Arizona is in the Old Deep South of the New West, digging in our heels and pulling out the shotguns to try to stop millions of people from seeking equality and freedom; people who came for the American Dream that we dangle, then jerk away. Our state has the right to deal with prisoners as it wants - the hell with US laws or standards. No wonder we are regarded as being littered with idiots. Despite our New American University, we're being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

It's okay so long as business needs their labor, whether it's through slavery or perpetual servitude; most people will just look away. But things have changed. Our relationship with immigrants has always been one of capital's convenience. Now that we don't have so many jobs we don't need to exploit their labor to drive down the cost of wages. Even Americans will work for cheap now, the economy's so bad. We've been through this cycle many times before. We treat foreign nationals like our own poor: as disposable.

I'd like to see the accrediting body's report on Correctional Health Services, and listen in on county supervisor meetings where it was addressed. How do you justify decreasing prisoner access to health care services when so many die in custody? How many of those "natural causes" were survivable heart attacks and strokes that maybe didn't get medical care quickly enough? Was mental health care provided to those who ultimately committed suicide in jail? Had anyone even recognized the risk? And what about the staff recommendations that were made - why were they never implemented?

Who is policing Correctional Health Services? The Arizona Republic? Is that all?

Now is the time to get in touch with our county supervisors and tell them we expect better health care in our jails as well as our communities, and that we will hold them accountable for these folks' lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment