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

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Deaths in Custody: Otto Munster, 40.

  Otto Munster

On Monday, March 5, another prisoner of the State of Arizona died by apparent suicide. Otto Munster had just turned 40 when he was sentenced to the Arizona Department of Corrections in September 2011. The judge made  a special stipulation in his sentencing orders that he receive mental health and substance abuse treatment services in prison - recommendations like that from  judges are seldom ever followed, though - they mostly serve to ease the conscience of the person sending a mentally ill prisoner to something other than the psychiatric hospital they think they should be in instead. 

I don't know just how vulnerable a prisoner Otto Munster was - I can find no information on him other than his criminal and court records. He was apparently mentally ill, however - dually diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder as well. Otto apparently had no prior criminal record in Arizona, but was arrested in March 2011 for several charges including armed robbery and aggravated assault. Based on the police report and a motion by the defense counsel, Otto was ordered to have a psych evaluation for competency (known in Arizona as a Rule 11) before any further legal proceedings. That means he was stuck in Joe's jail  untiol he pled guilty and was sentenced - about six months. The initial evaluation resulted in a split decision by the doctors, so he had a third one, at which he was finally found competent enough to plead guilty to the crime he was charged with when he was deemed too ill to stand trial. 

Like most mentally ill prisoners who had to pass through the Maricopa County jail, it appears that Otto pled guilty as soon as he was found competent. No matter how emphatically they may assert to their claims of innocence, they do that because the conditions in the jail are so horrible, they feel hopelessly trapped in the criminal justice system, their attorneys are telling them they could face outrageous sentences if they lose at trial, and just about every prisoner of Joe Arpaio's thinks a determinate prison sentence is better than an indefinite stay in our county jail. These days, a stay in state prison may well be worse than Joe's jail, though, as evidenced by the recent class action lawsuit about the gross medical and psychiatric neglect at the ADC. That's saying a lot.

The ADC itself reports that 75% of incoming prisoners are there for offenses related to their substance abuse, but only 2,302 (out of the 60,000 people they handle every year) ever got any kind of substance abuse treatment from them in all of 2011 (that's in the small print on the back page of this brochure). That figure includes the treatment provided to all those DUI offenders we supposedly lock up in special private DUI prisons, too, as well as every meth addict that comes through - despite the ADC's billion-dollar budget, prisoners just aren't getting what they need to be come decent citizens, folks, even when they beg for it.  

Chuck Ryan's Arizona Department of Corrections has only two priorities, neither of which is rehabilitative or treatment-oriented. They serve to punish and incapacitate people, that's all. That's why they're dying inside at such a clip behind bars, now, and why they come back to us in worse condition that when they went into prison in the first place. 

Judges need to stop deluding themselves and their defendants that prisoners will actually get their mental health or substance abuse treatment needs met by the state if placed in custody. In all probability, they will be more traumatized than healed by their experience in prison - if they survive it. At least 40% will come out infected with the Hepatitis C virus, too (half not even knowing it). HCV is a serious epidemic behind bars that the ADC has refused to fully address - which means it's also a major public health problem festering in our communities, where 95% of state prisoners eventually return to.

And so, it's easy for prisoners in Arizona - especially the seriously mentally ill being sent there on the false belief that they'll be "cared" for and safer there than if left on the streets, like Shannon Palmer - to quickly fall into a sustained state of terror, hopelessness and despair. According to the ADC website, almost immediately after arriving in prison, Otto Munster began to pick up disciplinary charges. From what's visible, it looks like most of those charges were aggravated refusals to follow an order - usually the order to house. Most guys who rack up disciplinaries for that are fearing for their lives and refusing to be in General Population; I wouldn't be surprised if we find out that this is the predicament Otto was in. 

Otto also initiated a petition for post-conviction relief, meaning he changed his mind about his plea deal and wanted a trial. He had to initiate that without legal assistance, however, and appears to have struggled to meet the requirements of the court for doing it properly - though Judge Paul McMurdie seemed to be trying to accommodate his mental illness by allowing his petition to proceed anyway; he even appointed an attorney to represent him (most post-conviction relief petitions I see are done without help). Otto likely discovered what I just explained about state prison as soon as he arrived and was horrified that he agreed to do five years there. He barely even made it five months. I suspect he was requesting protection from another prisoner or a gang when he died.

When a prisoner requests protective segregation, they usually go into the detention unit of the prison they're at, or they go to ASPC-Florence, where both Rosario Rodriguez-Bojorquez and Duron Cunningham were at, awaiting determination of their protective segregation requests, when they killed themselves in September 2010. That's where Otto was incarcerated when he killed himself this week as well. The ADC should know by now that when they tell vulnerable, frightened prisoners they won't be protected from targeted violence, they need to be alert for a self-destructive response. Especially after guards mocked Shannon Palmer's pleas for safety and he was castrated by his cellmate at ASPC-Lewis (also in September 2010), the level of terror among the men has skyrocketed.
 Death by hanging is understandably seen as a far more preferable out than dismemberment by another prisoner or a brutal rape and beating by a gang.

Many folks in the general public seem to think that the only people really getting hurt in prison are child molesters (and we tend to act as if they all deserve whatever may happen to them there, which is itself an indictment of what a brutal society we are). In fact, the folks I see dying en masse behind bars are by and large the seriously mentally ill who most Americans would be shocked to find are languishing in state prisons for things like smoking pot too many times on probation, or climbing a utility tower in the middle of a thunderstorm to be closer to God (Shannon Palmer got three years for that, under a law intended to prevent theft of copper wire. He was "rescued" by Mesa police and taken right to jail instead of a psychiatric hospital. Thank Judge Connie Contes for that one).

The Department of Corrections has apparently not yet located next of kin for Otto. If they end up keeping custody of his body, he will be buried with a simple service on prison grounds. There, his loved ones, if ever located, will have to go through the regular visitor application process every year just to leave flowers on his grave. If Otto's family or friends come across this post, please contact me. My name is Peggy Plews, my number is 480-580-6807, and my email is I'm no mental health professional or lawyer, but will do what I can to support you through the aftermath of his suicide, and can even connect you with other grieving families now fighting the way the ADC neglects and abuses Arizona's mentally ill prisoners. 

AZ State Capitol, PHX
March 6, 2012