For Kini Seawright, and all the other women who bury a loved one due to police or prison violence...

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Steve Twist and the invisible victims of Arizona's state crimes...

The following editorial in the Arizona Republic today (here, if you want to read it first) comes from Steve Twist, the author of the Arizona Victim's Bill of Rights and is founder of both the Goldwater Institute and "Arizona Voice for Crime Victims."  Here's a good link to his own narrative of his involvement in the victims' rights movement - from the early days - which is more useful and fair.

What precedes Twist's letter is my response to it, as submitted to the AZ Republic and Gannett News.
I urge everyone out there who cares about prisoner rights to contact the Arizona Republic / Channel 12 ( Editor, The Arizona Republic, P.O. Box 1950, Phoenix, AZ 85001, or here), and Gannet News (email ) every which way you can, and tell them to keep up the good work - this is just a sign that the real bad guys are getting scared, and resorting to their usual tactics (like scaring everyone else into trusting them).

Survivors of Prison Violence: 
mural made naming 68 victims from AZ Department of Corrections at the art show opening: Patriotic Descent" at the Firehouse Gallery, Phoenix (June 9, 2012).  

The prisoners listed were victims of homicide, suicide, and gross medical neglect under the administrations of Governor Jan Brewer and AZ DOC director Charles Ryan.


In his June 16 editorial in the Arizona Republic, Steve Twist complains about the recent investigative series by Bob Ortega on the high number of deaths in the state prisons under the current administration. I found it interesting that instead of writing to advance the rights of those human beings documented to be seriously neglected and abused in custody, Twist works overtime to frame the state as the victim of a "flagrantly malicious" attack by the media.

It always troubles me when it's an advocate for people who have been violated and victimized who comes to the rescue of one of the worst offenders, the prison system, by dismissing the evidence of brutality, corruption, loss of life, and sheer waste in front of them. Mr. Twist authored the Arizona Victims Bill of Rights, and has a long history of work on behalf of victims. Yet here Twist adamantly defends the perpetrators of gross neglect and facilitators of violence when it comes to the prisons - not the targets of it.

Twist argues that public safety will be compromised if we even look at the issue of the seriously mentally ill being tormented in solitary confinement and killing themselves, or the high incidence of assaults and murders in AZ's prisons. That kind of fear-mongering has been pretty effective, I'm afraid: America incarcerates more of our people than the Soviet Union or Communist China did at any time - and so much of it is for addiction and mental illness, not heinous crimes. I don't know how enforcing the law to reduce victimization behind bars could put the rest of us at risk, though. It seems to me that ignoring the soaring levels of violent criminal activity in prison is just giving the real bad guys more target practice, so they're especially vicious and well-rehearsed when they come back to our communities - which 95% of prisoners eventually do.

Twist's editorial also come to the aid of the current AZ DOC director, Chuck Ryan, on whose watch the homicide and suicide rates doubled as he eliminated mental health treatment programs, changed policies about how to match cellies, and curtailed the resources available to staff to treat the injured and dying. Ryan's also cultivated the climate of contempt for human life throughout his institution that allows such cruel and unusual medical neglect to occur as what goes on in Arizona's state prisons -  like that which Ferdinand Dix endured as he wasted away from cancer untreated, and unnoticed. Mr. Ryan should be forced to resign, frankly - he is a growing embarrassment to the Brewer Administration, and is clearly not in control of his prisons.

Mr. Twist is one who has stood with crime victims and their families time and time again. The organization he founded, Arizona Voice for Crime Victims, aspires "to establish a compassionate justice system in which crime victims are informed of their rights, fully understand those rights, know how to assert their rights, have a meaningful way to enforce those rights, and know how to seek immediate crisis intervention when they become victims of crime."

Such a vision of justice and compassion for victims doesn't apply, however, if the person against whom a crime was committed "is in custody for an offense" - no matter if one is even guilty of anything. A grocery store has more rights as a victim prosecuting a shoplifter than an Arizona prisoner who is raped in custody. That's the one category of person that was excluded from protection when Twist wrote the Victims Bill of Rights - prisoners.

The Victims Bill of Rights is part of our state constitution, having been approved by popular vote in 1990 to the applause of victims' rights advocates everywhere. I wasn't privy to discussions 20 years ago about the exclusion of persons in custody from the definition of "victim" while that document was being drafted. I have a hard time believing that idea came from the victims and survivors of violent crime themselves, though.

The government (especially the Attorney General's office) at the time this amendment was passed had ulterior motives - and they weren't to keep the People safe or even to be tough on crime. Quite the opposite:  the state was (and is) primarily concerned with making sure that two kinds of culprits - its institutions and agents - are exempt from being held to the same standards that other criminal perpetrators are. Twist's letter to the editor demonstrates one of the ways he and his partners in crime managed to get buy-in from the families and survivors of crime victims: by minimizing the extent of victimization in custody, and portraying victims of violence and abuse in prison as non-people who essentially deserve what they get. All of this is to render the victims and survivors  of prison violence irrelevant and invisible - which the Victims' Bill of Rights is partly intended to do.

By making prisoners exempt from the definition of victim in our state constitution, we communicate to their keepers and perpetrators (often one in the same) that individuals in custody are acceptable targets for violence, exploitation, and abuse. The ones most often violated in prison are not the hardened criminals who society thinks get what they deserve if they get raped or even killed, as Twist and his colleagues would have us think. The most victimized behind bars are actually the most vulnerable among us - the mentally ill, the developmentally and physically disabled, and those who have already endured physical and/or sexual abuse in their lifetimes.

If Mr. Twist doesn't plan to lead the effort to reduce their victimization behind bars, he should at least get out of the way of those who have been doing it for awhile - particularly the survivors. It's time to re-write the AZ Victim's Bill of Rights to include all human beings when they become targets of crime.

below: Kini Seawright, whose 26-year old son 
was murdered in Lewis prison (July 2010)

 from the opening of "Patriotic Descent"
The Firehouse Gallery, Phoenix
June 09, 2012

------from the Arizona Republic's "My Turn" page today------------

Ariz. prisons are humane, secure despite criticism

Steve Twist -

Jun. 16, 2012 12:00 AM

Prisons are an easy target for the media. The case in point is the recent series of articles in The Arizona Republic about inmate deaths in the state prison system.

The opening sentence of the series states, "Arizona's prison system has two death rows," followed by a gross mischaracterization of an "unofficial" death row where inmates die as a result of prison violence and neglect.
It compares the Arizona Department of Corrections' use of maximum security to house dangerous and violent inmates to "solitary confinement," citing the case of a woman held in a prison in Iran for 14 months who is now psychologically traumatized. There's something flagrantly malicious about using a prison experience in Iran as a comparison to an Arizona prison experience.

Having advocated for truth in sentencing, and wanting a prison system that focuses not only on the rights of inmates but also the rights of the victims of their crimes, I know firsthand that the term "solitary confinement" does not exist in the vocabulary of the Arizona Department of Corrections. DOC's practice is to employ multiple custody levels based on the nature of a crime and an inmate's assessment and behavior while in prison.

Maximum-security inmates, those who have committed brutally violent crimes, and those who have demonstrated predatory, unruly and violent behavior by being a danger to other inmates and staff, generally make up the population housed in high-security settings. No, they are not in dark isolation, deprived of human contact or anything comparable to solitary confinement. Nevertheless, these dangerous inmates are appropriately housed for the safety of the public, themselves, and other inmates and staff.

Certainly, some perspective is necessary in a discussion of the rate of inmate deaths in the Arizona prison system. In any population of 40,000, deaths will occur. Among those deaths will be a number due to serious illness, drug overdose, suicide and, tragically, even homicide.

I do not argue that those types of deaths in prisons are not proportionately higher than deaths that occur in a community with a population roughly matching that of our prison system.

But consider this: Unlike the vast majority of the people who live outside the system, a significant percentage of those who live in Arizona prisons are in poor health when they enter prison, suffering from a litany of maladies caused by years of a lack of health care and a basic understanding of taking care of oneself; drug addiction; physical abuse; and mental illness.

Moreover, prisoners frequently come from sociopathic and often violent backgrounds brought about by drugs, gang activity, or both, which have become so prevalent in our society. It is reasonable to assume that characteristics such as these are a major contributing factor in proportionately higher numbers of inmate deaths caused by illness, drug overdose, suicide or homicide.

We have a prison system in Arizona consisting of a variety of housing environments: dormitories, double-person cells, detention areas where inmates are temporarily segregated, and maximum-security single-person cells that are exclusively for problematic, dangerous inmates -- the worst of the worst. But in all cases, an inmate is able to interact with others. This includes the worst inmates, whose cells are in areas where they can speak with others in cells around them.

Critics of the Arizona Department of Corrections -- the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and inmate advocacy groups -- blindly blame maximum security as a cause of inmate deaths and want a less-restrictive environment in our prisons.

What we have now is a humane prison system that provides food and shelter, education, work programs, alcohol- and drug-addiction programs, and medical- and mental-health care that meet community standards.
Further, it is a system designed with emphasis on safety and security for inmates, staff, and, most of all, the public. Arizonans should want it no other way.

Steve Twist, a Phoenix lawyer, was chief assistant attorney general in Arizona from 1978 to 1991.