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

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Introducing the "Jailhouse Lawyer's Auxiliary Guild-AZ"

 my first blog post for this new blog:

 "Jailhouse Lawyer's Auxiliary Guild-AZ"

 Celebrate the Art of Resistance!
(some of this stuff is amazing...)
drawing by an anonymous prisoner of time
 ASPC-Phoenix/Flamenco Mental Health Ward
 (AUGUST 2013)
My name is Peggy Plews; I'm an artist and writer who became concerned with overincarceration in our country a few years back and began to blog about it to stimulate more community dialogue. About the same time, I became especially alarmed with the high rates of abuse and neglect in Arizona prisons, and in July 2009 I established Arizona Prison Watch, a blog focusing on navigating, surviving, and transforming the criminal justice system in our state. 

For a long time the only real information I could post about AZ prisons was what was already coming to light in mainstream media, or what I uncovered myself by investigating state records. In time, however, I began to receive distress letters from AZ Department of Corrections prisoners, calls from their distraught family members, and even anonymous emails from  DOC employees reporting that racialized politics rule the men's General Population yards and gangs are perpetrating high levels of violence against vulnerable prisoners while extorting their family members. I also heard very troubling accounts of gross medical and psychiatric neglect. On top of that, I was hearing from the women who had lost their children, siblings, and lovers to prison suicide, homicide, or devestating neglect.

Virtually all of those prisoners contacting me lacked the economic resources to consult, much less retain, an attorney, though I've developed a list of those I know of locally who have taken on the DOC and encourage people to seek qualified legal help when they can. I've pressured the formal institutions that seem to have responsiblity for assuring the protection of human and civil rights in custody.  I've also done what I can to engage mainstream media and legislators in efforts to investigate conditions in the state prison system, where the homicide and suicide rates doubled almost immediately once Charles Ryan became DOC director (January 2009, with the elevation of Jan Brewer to the Governor's office)

The ACLU of Arizona and others have since filed a class action suit (PARSONS v RYAN) on behalf of prisoners agaisnt the state over the dismal health care behind bars, as well as the damaging abuse of maximum security/solitary confinement to manage the symptoms of mental illness among prisoners - people who are thus being relentlessly tortured, not treated, for their psychiatric disabilities. Amnesty International investigated the use of solitary confinement and Supermax in Arizona and produced a scathing report

Furthermore, staff at the Tucson office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC-Tucson) have long been tenacious in their efforts to put an end to mass use of isolation cells, to stop the new Supermax (along with the ACLU-AZ), and to oppose prison privatization. See their blog, Cell-Out Arizona, hereDavid's Hope has taken a leadership role in organizing the Arizona Justice Alliance with human rights advocates across the state to address the major failings of our criminal justice system - at least in the area of making systemic reforms. 

Most recently, the House Minority Leader, Chad Campbell, has called for DOC Director Charles Ryan's resignation. Unfortunately, so far, Jan stands by her man. As far as she's concerned, all is well at the AZ DOC.

All of that and more is important, but at the end of the day the prisoners writing to me still didn't have anyone to help them with their crisis right then, so I began to figure out what I'd do if I was a prisoner or had a loved one inside myself. For the past year now I've been mailing self-help packets to prisoners dealing with complaints about their health care, assaults on their bodies, or repeated threats to their safety - I've responded to at least 500 requests for that kind of information already. I also work with families on involving their legislators in their struggles with the AZ DOC to assure that their loved ones make it home someday safe, coaching them both on the self-help material I give them, as well as on how to navigate the political scene.  

In some cases prisoners have filed their own civil lawsuits against the state and its agents, and I've provided then with what materials I can in support of such efforts, while trying to refrain from giving anything resembling "legal advice." I do everything I can to connect survivors with attorneys for wrongful deaths, too. It's a fine line, perhaps, but a necessary one for somebody to walk in order to arm people with the material they need to really fight for their own rights effectively, instead of waiting for the ACLU or DOJ to ride in to resuce them...which is not going to happen the way we all want it to. Those kinds of interventions take years to produce solutions to problems that some prisoners may be able to negotiate or litigate effectively themselves. 

Prisoner civil rights suits - even a whole mess of them - won't alone produce systemic change, of course. The correspondence I have with prisoners and contact with their families in the course of helping them has been vital in getting info about prison conditions out to legislators, other agencies, and the media, however - which is leverage for change, and at the very least informs the whole dialogue on crime and punishment with the thoughts and experiences of those most directly affected. I need to be kept posted as to what critical issues prisoners are struggling with most so that can continue to amplify those voices. But I can't sustain the cost of printing and mailing all this literature, nor do I have the time to meet the growing demand for it. 

I also want to focus my energies more on alternatives to incarceration in our society now, not in making our jails and prisons better places to live or die in. Those places are built with the intention of isolating and punishing - that means tormenting - large numbers of people in the most efficient way possible, while leaving as few marks on their bodies as we can, which I think is sadistic and disturbing. When a woman embezzles from her employer, for example, how is exiling her to a bleak existence for 10years - when she could otherwise be raising her family and making amends to her community - any less brutal than cutting off her hands and letting it be at that? If marginalizing, isolating and torturing someone for years is considered a civilized response to ecomonic or drug crimes, I want nothing to do with it. From all I've learned from prisoners, though - and my observations of this voting public - cruelty seems to be the rule in Arizona.

For those reasons and more, I've decided to try to make what I've been doing for prisoners and their families more accessible for others to do as well. In the links on the sidebar here are a number of the resources I send to prisoners, depending on what their issue is. None of it should be contrabanded by DOC, though there are occasionally over-enthusiastic mailroom staff who enforce outdated policies. Please contact me at 480-580-6807 or if any of this material is deemed "contraband" - or if you have other problems getting it delivered to prisoners, as well.

I've covered a  number of issues that folks coming here will have questions about in my other blogs, Arizona Prison Watch and Survivors of Prison Violence-AZ.  I've placed links to in the sidebar here to some of the more relevant blog posts, as well, but those blogs may be worth perusing if you have concerns about Arizona's prison conditions, deaths in custody, and the rest of the mess we have in the CJ system here. I plan to continue to maintain those sites, as well as to remain a resource to families and prisoners, if needed. 

I just ask that people make this place their first stop for resource material and print and mail in what they can to reduce the workload on me. If you all need help crafting arguments for the DOC or questions you can't otherwise find answers to, let me know. If you want to hit DOC's Central Office with me to protest on occasion, too, friend me on facebook to stay tuned for word of direct actions. Again, my name is Peggy Plews, and you can reach me as noted above.

This Jailhouse Lawyer's Auxiliary Guild, then, will be made up of all of us who - in  autonomous acts of disruption and resistance - take advantage of the resources here to help prisoners fight back against neglect and abuse. It takes so little from us to do this, and yet helps prisoners and their families so much. 

If you want to donate postage stamps, Staples cards (for ink), or cash for the cause, the PO Box is to the right. Please know that we aren't an organization with a bank account or tax exempt status - as I said, I'm just a civilian here. That means this comes out of my pocket, with some support from folks in my small community, so anything you want to send this way helps. I believe in the priciple of mutual aid, though, so there's no charge to access these resources or my time, so call on me if needed. I'm pretty easy to find.