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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

ASPC-Eyman suicide: Joaquin Tamayo, 41.

Another state prisoner has fallen victim to suicide; my condolences to his loved ones. If anyone out there knows anything about Joaquin's life or death, please contact me. My name is Peggy Plews; I can be reached at 480-580-6807 or I investigate and blog about abuse and neglect in the state prisons, among other things.

Joaquin's survivors need to know that there's a class action suit against the AZ DOC right now over the mis-treatment of seriously mentally ill prisoners, and that under the current administration the prisoner suicide rate doubled almost immediately...suggesting that at least every other suicide under Director Charles Ryan might have been prevented under a different administrator. They should retain an attorney as soon as possible to get to the bottom of Joaquin's suicide, not just for their own peace of mind, either: finding out what happened to him may spare others from a similar fate.

If Joaquin has no survivors, then it's on those of you in the community who knew and cared about him, despite his past crimes and the symptoms of his illness, to contact me and tell his story. I can tell from court records that people were trying to keep him out of prison - he wasn't even competent when he committed the crimes he was sentenced for. His criminal record is already public and condemns him, absent anyone amplifying his voice - don't let HIPAA or other formalities keep him exiled from the community and invisible in death now, too. Please contact me sooner rather than later... help me help the other people following Joaquin to Supermax who you know will die there, wrongfully and horribly... 

The Ghosts of Jan Brewer: crime victims in custody.

National Crime Victims' Rights Week, 2013:


The Ghosts of Jan Brewer: Victims of Crime and Neglect
 in AZ Department of Corrections' Custody
 (Firehouse Gallery, Phoenix: July 2012)

I wrote the following letter to the administrator for the Arizona Department of Corrections' Victims Services programs two years ago now, with no response to it whatsoever from anyone there - not ever. The violence and despair behind bars in that time has only worsened, too.

As I explained at the time, the questions I posed were not rhetorical - I really needed help for Dana Seawright's mom. Dana was killed in July 2010 by the West Side City Crips in Lewis Prison for having a Mexican boyfriend. His mother, Kini, was devastated by his homicide, lost her job and home and was being victimized by Brewercare and the AHCCCS cuts. She tried to access victims' rights resources for crisis intervention, trauma support, and concrete emergency assistance, but her request was denied by the AZ Attorney General's office. Since her son was in custody at the time he was murdered, she was denied the victims' rights and resources other mothers of murdered children have.

That happened thanks to all you victims' rights advocates who helped pass the beloved 1990 Victims' Bill of Rights amendment to the AZ Constitution. It explicitly excluded prisoners from the same rights the rest of us have when raped, beaten, or locked in a cage in the desert to die. Those of you who really care about all crime victims need to look at the consequences of that decision to sell out the voiceless, and help me change the constitution before the state prisoner homicide and suicide rates double again. 

The prosecutors and peace officer unions in this state no doubt played a big role in assuring that people in custody were constitutionally deprived of the rights of victims, as well as their survivors. Few people are liekly aware that the AZ Attorney General's office, which holds the checkbook for most victims rights funds in this state, is the same entity which defends the state against wrongful death suits when mentally ill men like Shannon Palmer are castrated and murdered in state custody, or women like Marcia Powell are left dying in the sun by her guards, or when five officers stand around and videotape a young man bleeding to death without trying to offer first aid. 

It seems to be a conflict of interest for the AZ Attorney General's office to be hailed as champions of victims' rights when the most disempowered, vulnerable populations in the state - the incarcerated mentally ill, elderly, cognitively impaired, physically disabled, and "delinquent" children - aren't protected by their office. The last place many crime victims and their survivors in this state can look to for justice, in fact, is the AZ Attorney General's office.

Start talking to your legislators about this, families. And I hope all you advocates for justice start talking to the crime victims and survivors who you long since excluded from your midst. It is their exile and your indifference to their fate which makes the worst horrors of prison life all the more likely to be perpetrated on them...

SOS from Arizona's Other Death Row: 
 Victims of Crime and Neglect  in AZ Department of Corrections' Custody
 (Firehouse Gallery, Phoenix: July 2012)

April 19, 2011

Jan Upchurch, Administrator
Office of Victims' Services
Arizona Department of Corrections
1645 W. Jefferson - MC250
Phoenix, AZ 85007

Dear Ms. Upchurch;

I am a human rights activist, artist and blogger in Phoenix, and have been researching violence and suicide in AZ state prisons over the course of the past 2 years. This has opened my eyes and brought me into considerable more contact with victims of violent crime in ADC custody and their survivors than most members of the public. Do prisoners or the family members of prisoners qualify for victims' services through your office if they/their loved ones are crime victims while imprisoned at the ADC? If not, who advocates for them when prisoners are assaulted, raped, murdered, or neglected and abused (as in the case of Marcia Powell)? Additionally, who fights for policy changes that may prevent further victimization behind bars?

Many of those I see victimized at the ADC are evidently psychiatrically or developmentally disabled, and can't advocate for safer cellmates or protective segregation, or fight abusive COs or policies effectively through the grievance process or other formal systems - which arguably gives rise to more self-injurious behavior and violence out of frustration or sheer terror, a liability even if their inability to access legitimate processes keeps down the grievances and potential lawsuits. Mentally ill prisoners don't seem to be served by either DES' Protective Services Division or the AZ Center for Disability Law when victimized in custody, either. In fact, I believe all parties I just mentioned are in direct violation of the American with Disabilities Act and/or other federal mandates, as they pertain to disabled individuals victimized in custody, regardless of the AZ constitutional limits on their rights as crime victims, per se.

Furthermore, the perpetrators of prison violence and other institutionally-based crime - be they staff or inmate - are apparently seldom street-charged or prosecuted, suggesting that neither the Criminal Investigations Unit nor county attorneys hosting prisons take an aggressive role in promoting the rights of victims in custody, which seems to just tell criminals that it's who they victimize, not what they do to others, that really matters. How does the ADC plan to rectify that?

Given what we spend to keep people locked up, prison is the one place in society where crime should be under control and victims are promptly and professionally accommodated. I see no one who prisoners or families can go to out here when violent crime befalls them in prison, though - without being charged a fee for advocacy or counseling - which means these victims are easily victimized (and perhaps criminalized) again, if you don't serve them either. Even the Attorney General won't help them - he defends the ADC.

These are pointed questions, I know, but they are not rhetorical. I imagine there may be a conflict of interest with your office, but that shouldn't preclude a third party providing those services under contract with the state, just like they do for other crime victims and their families. I need this info ASAP in order to advise people who were victimized (or survived homicides of prisoners) in ADC custody of what resources are available to them; at least one grieving mother I've heard from is living on the verge of homelessness and I'm not sure where to refer her.

I see this as a serious problem underlying the continuation of prison violence, especially against vulnerable adults, made so by the symptoms of their disabilities. James Jennings is a tragic example of someone clearly killed because of their mental illness; both Shannon Palmer and his killer, Jasper Rushing, were reportedly pleading for protection - and both somewhat psychotic - when they were celled so fatefully together. Duron Cunningham reported that he was raped and assaulted before he killed himself. The list goes on.

I plan to begin a public education campaign in the coming weeks to address the issue of victims' rights (or lack thereof, under the state constitution) in custody, particularly as they apply (or don't) to surviving family members. The ADC can hinder that effort with propaganda obscuring the victimization of prisoners, help advance the field of victims' services by exploring and answering these questions thoughtfully, or do nothing but get out of the way. I invite your office into a dialogue about it, however, as I want to believe you serve for good reason. I don't know whether protecting the state or our citizens is your primary concern, though, as I don't know you. It should not have to be mutually exclusive, but seems to be given the litigation expected to follow incidents of violent crime against persons in custody.

Taking responsibility for the harm one causes or allows to be caused to another is part of the ethos of the criminal justice system. Making amends to victims - individuals, businesses, and communities, is seen as central to any kind of restorative justice, which the State of Arizona heartily endorses, as evidenced by the practice of ordering restitution when sentencing, and penalizing offenders further for failing to meet said orders. What does the ADC practice, when it comes to their own crime victims, though? Even if prisoners have no rights as victims, what about the principle of preventing future crime by making an example of perpetrators today? Why should violent criminals be provided with such blanket permission to practice on more victims before they leave prison, where they are supposedly being punished...

...None of this bodes well for how I see the prison privatization project going: the ADC is responsible for Kingman's lack of security, ultimately, and I saw nothing in the RFPs that were put out that indicates a particular concern for victims' rights. In fact, the objective set down by the ADC of making sure that no more than 1% of grievances are ultimately upheld troubles me. Correct me if I read that wrong: it just seems like an incentive to deprive prisoners of due process rights when they are harmed, not to protect them. There's no indication that private prisons would even issue press releases about prisoner deaths or abuse, or be accountable for their health and safety to the public in any transparent way. They're harder to see into than the state prisons are, giving rise to more risk of victimization.

I'm sure that given your position, you can understand my frustration and concern over the constitutionally-diminished value of prisoner's lives and the gravity of their suffering in custody, placing their very survival secondary to the state's interests in cutting costs. It manifests toxins at every level of society, such that ugliness flows from the community into the media whenever a prisoner kills themselves - look at the "comments" after every ADC press release on a suicide. It's tragic, what has become of us since the PLRA and the victims' rights amendments to state constitutions were made exempting prisoners from fundamental protections: our entire society has devolved, and I think I can make the connections.

I also think I can make the case that both these prisoners and their families are deserving of the same constitutional guarantees given all other citizens and non-citizens alike, when it comes to their welfare. Having fought most of my life to keep my own brother out of prison and harm's way - surviving the devastating suicide of a loved one myself, in the process - I'm free to tell that part of my own story, liberating others from the shame that may keep them from telling theirs. I have been a victim of violent crime, and cope now with a mood disorder and the remnants of PTSD; not much frightens me anymore. I've embraced the mothers of ADC's homicide victims, and helped my community bury our dead; I am intimately connected to this struggle. I will not relent until I know that AZ prisoners and their loved ones are getting their needs met, not brutalized, at my expense, in my name, for the sake of my own family's illusion of "safety".

Sorry to greet you so early with this level of frankness, but you seemed like an appropriate person to bring into the conversation. I appreciate your time and what thoughts you may have. I look forward to hearing back from you or the DOC's General Counsel on this matter soon.


Peggy Plews


Margaret J. Plews, Editor
Arizona Prison Watch
P.O. Box 20494
Phoenix, AZ 85036

"Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness, and our ability to tell our own stories..."

- Arundhati Roy

Sunday, April 14, 2013

ASPC-Tucson/Rincon Deaths in Custody: Billy D Lee, 54.

Looks to me as if this poor fellow was recommended to the Governor for clemency just a week before he died, which suggests that his death was pretty imminent - or at least no one was expecting him to make it to the end of his  9 year sentence for what is listed in one place in his record as a marijuana violation

That's a lot of time for trying to sell some pot, especially if you're a sick man already. Billy Lee was also so mentally impaired when he was prosecuted for this crime that he first had to undergo competency exams - which appears to have been the case every time he was prosecuted for something. I don't know if he was mentally ill or developmentally disabled, but it looks from court records as if folks were pretty concerned about his capacity for criminality, which must have played into the recommendation to release him early from his term of imprisonment.

Right now, though, that's largely speculation.

I seldom post DOC death notices when causes are "natural", but I heard from the yard that Billy was last on that some of the other prisoners believe he died for lack of his insulin; we need to clear that up. If anyone is close to Billy and knows for sure this situation, please let me know so I can pass appropriate info on to his survivors and get back to the guys on his yard who are worried that he died from negelct.

My condolences to Bily's loved ones.

If you have any information for us on Billy's life or his death, please contact me: 

Peggy Plews 
AZ Prison Watch 
 PO Box 20494 Phoenix, AZ 85036 

Friday, April 12, 2013

AZ DOC's Protective Custody fight: tend to both body and soul.

I've been hearing from a lot of guys lately who are about to go to prison with what are called "issues" - reasons to request protective custody (also known as the 805 process, named after the DOC policy that covers it). I hate to say it, but AZ has the reputation of being the worst place in the country to do time in state prison. The DOC is facing a class action suit for gross medical neglect, inappropriate use of solitary confinement, and neglect and abuse of mentally ill prisoners. Race riots are erupting. The prison suicide and homicide rates doubled when Jan Brewer too over four years ago, and have remained among the highest in the nation. Assaults are out of control. And the officers are apparently as violent and criminally-inclined as the people they guard.

The prison yards across the state are being run by prisoners and gangs, not DOC staff, it's quite clear to me now. When you land you have to show the "leader" (or someone who will report to him) your police report - those are your "papers". By these you will be judged as a snitch (if you spilled the beans to the cops on arrest), as a perpetrtor of crime (ANY kind) against a woman or a child, or any number of other things they can use to justify telling you your papers are "no good" and that you either need to "clear your name" by doing dirty work for them, risk getting smashed into a coma and airvac'ed, or PC up and leave the yard. Not showing your papers is an indication that you have something to hide. 

Prisoners are given no choice on this. If your police papers are good, get a copy so you can get cleared quickly by the guys on the yard. If not, I wouldn't bring them in with you - they get stolen by porters and used as evidence against you among your peers, who will be much harder on you than the courts were. Have your family hold on to a copy of anything that can be shown to the DOC as evidence that you are at risk, though - anything suggesting you cooperated with police or prosecutors, court papers of your testimony, media articles about your crime or victim (even if your crime was pickpocketing, if your victim was a woman or child, you could be at risk), etc. If you need to apply for PC, they will need to send that material directly to Central Office to support your argument while making sure it doesn't get into the hands of the prisoner population.

Once on the yard, if your paperwork is bad: 

If you're given the chance to "clear your name" don't think you will ever be able to do so or be guaranteed protection by hurting another prisoner, especially some guy who never did a thing to you himself. The gangs will turn on you once you no longer meet their needs, and you'll be the next one they put the green light on - and no other prisoner will respect you enough by then to have your back, so you'll have to tuck your tail between your legs and go scurrying to the guards for safety, anyway

Paying extortion money (often damnded of gay prisoners to assure their safety) won't protect you for long, either - sooner or later all you're going to do is lead those people home to threaten those who love you. Don't do it. And for god's sake, don't get into any debt - not drugs, not gambling, not a little advance on your store - nothing. All that does is put a green light on you - the okay to hurt or kill you - that can be activated as soon as you default.

My advice is to do some real reflecting now so you know what you will and won't compromise in order to assure your own safety. Realize that the most precious freedoms are often taken from us without a scratch - it's the freedom to choose who we are and how we live in whatever world we are confined to. What are you willing to take a beating for, or even risk dying for? Is there anything - like the sanctity of human life, or the deepest part of your soul - that's worth putting yourself on the line for? If not, then you have some more serious issues than those which got you into trouble with other prisoners. 

If someone tells you the only way you can survive is to compromise that which you've determined you won't, tell them to fuck off - then brace yourself, and get to safety. Don't stand around and wait to be smashed - PC up if you need to, and get a hold of me right away. I'm Peggy Plews at Arizona Prison Watch / PO box 20494 / Phoenix, AZ 85036.

This comes up this morning because of a call I had with a prisoner's mom last night - her kid's a new arrival, facing over 6 years for burglary. He's a little guy with asthma and some learning disabilities, maybe a mental illness as well - he's scared to death. I wrote up this letter below for him, based on what a lot of other guys have told me about surviving prison with one's integrity intact. It seems appropriate to share here, for those of you about to hit the AZ DOC. 

If you're heading in for a term yourself, spend a little time perusing this blog first, call me if you have any questions, and make sure your family knows I'm an accessible resource for them and you - no charge. This is my own little way of fighting back against both gang and state violence. I seek to "abolish" the prisons of today by breaking through those walls and touching every person I can. I bring with me a mirror by which people who have been told their lives are worth less than nothing  can look into their own souls to find what is worth loving and believing in again, and fighting for. And I try to give prisoners the basic tools they need to resist the violence, despair, and oppression of incarceration. It's relatively easy for me - for anyone out there - to do. The real hard work - and the greatest risk - is on the prisoner.

Feel free to print up the letter below and send it in to anyone who may be hitting the DOC in similar straits. Here, also, is the letter I wrote to all prisoners dealing with protective custody applications: 

and this is a guide to actually making an effective 805 argument, written by another priosner:


--------to a male prisoner in the AZ DOC assessment/intake process------

Hey David -

I got your postcard and spoke with your mom tonight. Sorry to hear you’re in such a jam. The DOC has likely already told you they won’t be placing you in protective custody - the PC yards are all full and the detention cells across the state are spilling over with guys in your shoes, or worse, right now, so they’re going to hand you some BS to justify sending you into GP. Appeal the decision so they have to give you a denial in writing, but don’t get your hopes up - my bet is that you’re heading for a 3 yard, and as soon as you hit they’ll want your papers, which I understand are the problem.

Once you land on a regular yard, PC up right away if it isn’t feeling safe there, and get ahold of me. - I need you to outline the argument you’re making to the DOC for why the threat you face is statewide, etc.  If you refuse to house, they may ticket you. Fight the ticket on the grounds that going on the yard would endanger you - that’s very important. Make them explicitly justify putting you in harms way and punishing you for resisting, get copies of everything you can,  and send me all your documentation. That’s ammunition for your fight down the road.

Your application will take longer - more denials and appeals - if you don’t show that you’ve actually been threatened or assaulted on the yard they send you to, but I can’t guarantee that you can survive the first attack, so I don’t encourage guys to wait for it before they PC up. By law, you don’t have to be assaulted in order to prove your need for protective segregation. But in practice, you’ll need to be able to build a stronger case for it than you have now to overcome all the barriers to getting into PC these days.

Basically, the violence in the state prisons is so out of control that more people are fleeing it than perpetrating it. No one is getting approved for PC who doesn’t have a lawyer or some heavy artillery on their side. Your mom and I are going to work on the artillery since she can’t swing  a lawyer, but that doesn’t get you off the hook. You need to become a damn good advocate and exercise your power yourself, in a very short time. You’re the one the DOC needs to be afraid of, not us, as only you can file a federal suit if your civil rights are violated. The DOC needs to know that you’re smart enough and assertive enough to do so. You’re going to need to scare them even while you’re sitting quietly in your shorts in the hole.

It should come as no surprise that the DOC isn’t primarily concerned about the danger you guys are in - they’re concerned with the danger the institution may be in from any of you or your families if you are hurt or killed. That’s how they appear to be prioritizing PC applications, so don’t think that your life has been devalued any more than any other prisoner’s, or that there’s anything you’ve said or done particularly wrong that means you deserve a worse time of it than any other prisoner.

You’re just landing in the AZ DOC at this time in history, when things are especially rough. I think you can get through this and still come out a better man - not because of anything the DOC does to help you, but because your mom believes you have it within you to transcend and grow beyond this experience. But you’re going to have to fight for your life in there, and it’s the state, not the other prisoners, that is most likely to kill you if you aren’t on your toes. Between your asthma, your vulnerability to assault, and your lack of political power, you are high risk and you can’t count on the AZ DOC to care for or protect you - they are there to punish you, to make you suffer. You need to build the best relationships you can with other prisoners, instead - and arm yourself with civil rights law as if your life depended on it like water - it does.

If you screwed up on the streets or hurt someone bad, take responsibility for it and show others that you’re a man of integrity now. The gangs give guys a chance to “clear your name” by doing bad things to others - don’t hurt someone else even if it seems like the only way to survive yourself. Develop a simple moral code you can easily explain and always fall back on when faced with dilemmas, one that gives you spiritual strength when people treat you as if you deserve to die.

If you learn all about prisoner rights and how to navigate the system in there, the other guys will begin to respect and value you for who you are now; who you once were becomes less important, then. Build a reputation of being someone who can be trusted to show good judgement and to know how to fight back against state oppression - become that kind of warrior. You don’t need to become some big jailhouse lawyer - keep it on the downlow, actually, if you do figure out the ropes, so the DOC doesn’t slap you down and try to cut you off from other guys who need the help. Become useful in there, but remain humble and discreet.

If you can do those things, they will protect you more in the long run than the DOC ever will, because all the DOC can do is put a wall between you and those who would hurt you - it doesn’t change anyone thinking they have the right or need to hurt you, though, which will catch up to you someday, when the walls are gone. You need to fix that now. Think of the detention cells and hardships you’re about to face as giving you a period of spiritual and mental training, like a Jedi knight being held as a prisoner of war in a dungeon full of lions. It’s okay to fantasize silly things like that if they build your inner strength, The danger you face there is real and bigger than normal life,  and you’ll need to psych yourself up somehow, with superhuman powers, to get through it, because there will be times when you’ll just want to lie down and quietly die. Don’t. Write to me or your mom instead.

I’m enclosing a guide to fighting for your 805 that another prisoner helped us come up with, based on his experience. I’m also enclosing a letter about the 805 process - it’s from February, but it’s all still good. I’m also sending you a questionnaire to give me a better idea of how else I can help; send that back when you land someplace. Keep your eyes and ears open for folks who might hurt you, but keep your head up, too - don’t let your shame tell anyone else it’s okay to hurt you. Make real amends where you can and take responsibility for what you feel bad about instead, or that’s the crap that will get you killed.

Hang in there and keep me posted on how things are going - I told your mom I’m yours as long as you guys need me, for whatever it’s worth, until you land someplace you feel relatively safe. My arms aren’t long enough to wrap around you guys in there, though - I can’t protect you. I can only really support, encourage, pray for you and be witness to your struggle.

Let me know when you land on the next yard.

Take care -


Thursday, April 11, 2013

ASPC-Lewis 2013 uprising: STRIKE!!!

UPDATE: Got this word out of a contact close to what happened at Morey Unit this week - if anyone knows more, please contact Peggy at 480-580-6807 or

Thanks to the good soul who updated us on this incident:

"What I heard was that there was a nice size riot, sit down and work strike at Morey. At that point, the whole complex was locked down.

"Scab" kitchen workers from Bachman were brought over to Morey, at which time the fracas started up again at the kitchen. The kitchen workers locked themselves in a room, as the Morey inmates thought they were PC guys.

They were informed that they were not PC guys, but kitchen workers from Bachman. Those kitchen workers are safe.

Ironically enough, PC Barchey is now making sack lunches for Morey..."

 Signs of Resistance:
Prisoners Justice Day 2012

The following narrative of the AZ DOC's version of what's happening in our prisons was hardly on par with the AZ Republic's otherwise thoughtful treatment of prison issues, and doesn't even acknowledge other recent such prison "disturbances" and all out race riots of late
Hmm. I certainly wonder why the prisoners are protesting so loudly - especially since they don't seem to be fighting each other this time and have apparently turned their frustrations against the state.

Maybe prisoners are tired of the AZ DOC medical staff leaving their peers to die in agony, like Tony Lester, Anthony Brown Ferdinand Dix and Brenda Todd were

Or maybe it's all the suicides and the abuse of mentally ill prisoners they're upset about . Or maybe its the overall indifference to human life that underlies the class action suit about gross medical and psychiatric neglect

Of course, it could be the murders and gang violence the prisoners are tired of... or maybe the proliferation of heroin and all the overdoses...

Could also be the plans to build a new Supermax prison 
Really, it could be a lot of things, I guess - prisoners are dropping dead for unknown reasons and some are coming down with bizarre illnesses, like botulism And the body count keeps growing...

If you decide to file grievances instead, guys, here's a little help...

Write to me if you want to expose prison abuse and neglect, too! 
Arizona Prison Watch
PO Box 20494 
Phoenix AZ 85036

from the AZ Republic, a sadly superficial report coming a day late and a dollar short...

The Republic |  
Wed Apr 10, 2013 10:42 PM
A “chemical agent” like pepper spray was used by correctional officers to quell a disturbance this week involving approximately 40 inmates at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis in Buckeye, an Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman confirmed.
Bill Lamoreaux, the department’s spokesman, said the inmates refused to leave the dining hall in the Morey Unit and began to damage property after 8 a.m. Tuesday.
The disturbance lasted about five minutes. Lamoreaux said the inmates were brought under control, cuffed and taken away.
Minor injuries were suffered by an undisclosed number of staffers and inmates, Lamoreaux said.
The Arizona Republic and 12 News were first notified of the incident by a confidential source who said a riot had occurred. Lamoreaux said the source’s characterization was untrue.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Women's Day, violence, and Arizona's state prisoners...

FAMILIES: I've been hearing you. Here's my response. Feel free to download the PDF copy here, print, and send it into as many people you know in the prisons. This has been circulating for two weeks already, and the free men inside are beginning to write back...

International Women's Day 
 March 8, 2013
To the men who inhabit Arizona's state prisons...

As some of you may know, through my blogs and art for the past several years I've been challenging the escalating level of violence, deliberate indifference, and despair in Arizona's state prisons under the directorship of Charles Ryan - the man I've raged at the most in this time, and demanded accountability from. Only recently has it really sunk in that he is not – and never really was – in control of the prisons he administers. You, the prisoners are. Ryan, therefore, is not the man I need to be talking to about all this – the guys who run the gangs and the yards are. So are the people who listen to them.

And so, today, on International Woman's Day, my appeal to end the violence and transform the culture and politics of Arizona's state prisons goes to all you guys who set the tone in there. Specifically, I'm writing to ask for your help stopping the violence against women and children being perpetrated from behind prison walls.

I know that our welfare is something the gangs and yard leaders care about these days because you're putting a green light on every guy accused of committing a crime against a woman or child, among other things. Word has it that there's a “sweep of the prisons” going on right now to target those guys for assault, extortion, and murder. Based on all the calls I've received from the sisters, mothers, lovers and daughters of these men, however, the effect of this approach has been largely to victimize the women and children who love them.

I know you can't see that kind of unplanned consequence the same way I can – I get at least ten calls a week from women being directly terrorized by prison violence, which is why I've come to talk to you all myself, face to face, so to speak. I've come to amplify their voices, which I hope you care enough to hear. They want you to know that they're tired of losing their men and burying their children, and they want to know who among you has the courage to try to stop it.

If anyone has the power to, it's you.

Some people have told me I'm crazy for trying this – that I'm just making myself a target for gang violence in the process, and that your expressed concern about the welfare of women and children is nothing more than an excuse to justify more violence against us by way of attacking our families, which is no different from what the state does. If I don't ask for your help, though, who will? I learned a long time ago from my father that some things are worth taking a stand and fighting for, even if with it comes risk.

If all that is said about you guys is true, then my public critiques of prison gangs, my aggressive efforts to have you all prosecuted for your crimes against other prisoners, and the number of victims I've rescued from your clutches have already made me a target, anyway, and it's just a matter of time before you send someone after me. So be it: I'm not too hard to find, and won't live in the shadows in fear. I'm just hoping that down to the last man you realize that someday you or your family may need my help, as well, and let me express myself unharmed, so that I can still be here for you should that day ever come.

What I'm really counting on connecting with is your humanity and integrity, though, not your self-interest. I've heard from enough guys who have run with you to know that you're not all just products of your environment or driven solely by greed or fear. Most of you, I bet, don't even buy into the racist garbage that the state tries to divide and conquer you with, treating you as if you're all stupid – I know that's just how the politics break down in there. In a foxhole, under fire from a common enemy, a rival gang member may even come to count on you as a comrade and know, you're all under pretty heavy fire now, come to think of it.

What I've seen in my relationships with state prisoners is that most ofyou find ways to defy the dehumanization, and are constantly tryingto survive the world you've been exiled to without eternallycompromising your souls. I always thought you guys had some kind of code of honor, but I see so many guys who have felt the only way to live with themselves was to leave their gang behind, which brought them into conflict with other values, like loyalty. When ordered to harm someone they had no business with or be harmed themselves, they felt they were given no choice but to walk away.

I'm hopeful that with Arizona's prison gangs' apparent commitment to reduce violence against women and children now, though, there's room for dialogue about how you guys can help change the overall culture in there and stop chasing men of conscience from your ranks along with all those guys you don't want. Prisoners are the only ones with the power to starve the state from within of what it feeds on (and feeds us) to perpetrate brutality against you and your families: if you could confront and defy the misogyny, heteropatriarchy, racism, classism, and other bullshit that keeps us all down, you would be the heroes of this revolution.

Instead you risk coming off to the world as nothing more than criminal gangs whose power and creativity is limited to extorting grandmothers for a fix or a fast buck...which is the reason Arizonans are so quick to support the building of new Supermax prisons and further sentencing enhancements for men the state can so label. You have so much more power and potential than to settle for exploiting vulnerable people and their families, though.

Some prison gangs across the country have taken a second look at their ethical codes and begun to use their influence and organizational capacity to their people's advantage: calling out the prison system on abuses in custody, imposing statewide moratoriums on inter-racial violence, secretly teaching each other to read and to litigate the state themselves, and so on.

In some prison yards, loyalty and community is being built not through the imposition of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, but through informed and thoughtful struggle against your common oppressor. A fundamental value is growing for the kind of fairness and justice that the state deprives you of; men are no longer being condemned to additional punishments for the crimes that brought them to prison, much less for the unchecked narrative of what they were accused of that was written by the media and the state.

Instead, in some places men are being judged for the values they live in prison by and the skills they have to offer to their community – like teaching, jailhouse lawyering, and caring for elders and the very ill. Those are the kind of people I'd be recruiting as my brothers (and my sisters) – those who can help cultivate collective resistance to the real threat, state violence, not just those who may be good at collecting on debts until they get taken out by younger men like themselves.

Some prison gangs are making a point of finding and reaching out to young guys who can lead with integrity, instead of continuing the dynamics that encourage and empower those who seek “respect” or their own safety by hurting or killing the most vulnerable or detested prisoner they can find. I'm sorry if I offend any of you, but I'd have a real hard time trusting any of the latter to watch my back, and I wouldn't call them brothers, whatever color they were – nor would I have much respect for those whose interests they represented.

In places like Georgia and California in recent years prisoners have used cell phones and their extensive statewide communication networks to organize massive hunger strikes and labor stoppages in protest of their conditions of confinement, their “sedentary diets” and chronic hunger, and the deliberate indifference shown them by health care providers. They've circulated “illegal” petitions and staged solidarity actions with politicized prisoners in solitary confinement. They've called for an end to violence in their home communities, and for mobilization against the police state oppressing us all instead.

Some of you know that I'm a prison abolitionist – a position which causes State Power and prisoners alike to think I'm absolutely out of my mind. “Real criminals” know (better than anyone, I'm told) that some people just need to be locked away from the rest of us forever, and I'm delusional to think that will ever change.

What I advocate, however, is not just the demolition of prisons across the country – it's the deconstruction of the entire prison industrial complex and the creation of community-based, non-heirarchical mechanisms for promoting the values of collective liberation, shared power, and social justice. Anyone who truly wants a world in which there are no longer victims of war, poverty, rape, or other forms of violence should share in such a vision, because those paths are fundamentally inseparable.

Out of an ethical foundation which places humanity, not corporate profit, at the center of our worlds would naturally evolve more productive ways of not only dealing with addiction, mental illness, poverty and political resistance than chaining and caging people up, but that also confronts and stops those among us who harm others for nothing but their own gain or entertainment.

We are ingenious beyond our ability to imagine – surely we can come up with better solutions to our social problems than simply exiling our deviants and transgressors to a netherworld in which they and their families will be preyed on by sociopaths in orange, brown, and business suits alike while they serve sentences formulated to promote political careers, not further the cause of truth or justice.

Reinforcing institutions of state violence is a major problem, not a solution to our problems, in any case. The prison industrial complex is composed of entities and networks which consume valuable life energy and community resources while going to great lengths to justify their survival beyond their obsolescence. It depends on the perpetuation of many evils to keep us all in chains, both literally and figuratively with our fears and diminished expectations of each other.

All of that is to explain the main reason I've finally decided to come to you for help stemming all this violence – other than Chuck Ryan's impotence, as evidenced by his lack of solutions to gangs seizing control of his prisons other than to build more Supermax cells for you all. I don't want to spend any more of my energy trying to make the very system I'm a sworn enemy of stronger than the potential resistance to it. Abuse of state power manifests in far more egregious offenses against humanity than that which we throw so many people into prison for.

Furthermore, you fellows are the ones who have the most control over your environment and your destinies, not the AZ DOC or prison gangs, despite all the illusions to the contrary. Asking the state to quell the violence is only inviting them to invest in more guards, more cages, more tools of domination, and more weapons of repression. I won't do it anymore.

If you are men of honor – which I have taken considerable risk on the confidence that you are - and really wish to stop the violence against women and children, then exercise the control you already have and do the one thing Ryan himself can never hope to do: stop the violence that originates with you and your brothers. Only then will you and others begin to fully realize how much more power each of you have to transcend both the chains and the lies that make you think resistance to this state, and all the attendant evils of incarceration, is futile. It is not. I know this because I have met free men in prison already on this journey. They are organizing quietly among you – and they are everywhere.

If you are a free man, too, please write to me, and tell me how you think we can work together to help liberate the rest from the chains that try to bind us all – help me before their mothers, sisters and daughters are called to bury them instead.

Thanks for your time and concern for our welfare. May the women and children who love you never know the heartbreak of losing you to this madness, too.

Peggy Plews

Please reply to: Arizona Prison Watch / PO Box 20494 / Phoenix, AZ 85036

for good stuff about women, violence, and the prison industrial complex, see:

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Ghosts of Jan Brewer: Anthony Brown.

The Ghosts of Jan Brewer: Guerilla art installation, in chalk.
Arizona State Capitol Complex, Phoenix
(April 3, 2013)

In Arizona, prisoners are just commodities - interchangeable and disposable ones, at that. We have a criminal justice system driven by political ambitions and profit incentives to exploit the misery of those who are simply accused and the "duly-convicted" alike, bleeding dry their scapegoated families in the process. We do great violence to the lives of those people we incarcerate for non-violent offenses like property damage and theft, drug addiction, prostitution, and the symptoms of mental illness, simply by ripping them out of their families and communities. We then exile them to what is now known as one of the most deadly, horrifying places to do time for ones' crimes in the country - the AZ Department of Corrections.

The AZ DOC's reputation these days is well-earned. Not only has the level of despair and violence skyrocketed, they're facing a class action suit over the gross neglect of medical and mental health needs of all state prisoners. According to the suit, the mentally ill are commonly placed in solitary confinement or maximum security settings where they can be locked away and forgotten, left to contend with their psychoses  or extreme moods on their own. Most of those who kill themselves do so in isolation. Others, like Shannon Palmer and James Jennings, are placed while symptomatic with prisoners who can't tolerate them or are equally as disturbed and untreated, and subsequently end up assaulted or murdered by their cellies.

Prisoners like Nelson Johnson, who went on a hunger strike to protest conditions in the months before he died, are regarded as nuisances and troublemakers and frequently disciplined. Some are repeatedly accosted with pepper spray (according to family, Nelson had to be treated by paramedics after one such attack) and other coercive efforts to achieve compliance with orders being barked at them that they may not even have the capacity to understand, depending on their level of psychosis or their response to trauma. 

Suicide watch is more of a punishment than a therapeutic intervention to help prisoners stay safe - no wonder Susan Lopez went back to her cell and hung herself instead, when offered such "assistance". And it's unclear how much attention rape survivors get for their trauma - Duron Cunningham was sexually assaulted, then subsequently set up for an attack by a CO he complained about, and was begging the state to place him in protective custody when he died.

 "Empower the Ghosts of Jan Brewer" Guerilla art installation, in chalk.
AZ Alliance for the Mentally Ill Annual Meeting
Disability Empowerment Center, Phoenix
March 23, 2013

Four years ago this spring, soon after Jan Brewer became Arizona's governor and appointed Charles Ryan to lead the Department of Corrections, one of the most horrific cases of prisoner neglect occurred at the state women's prison, ASPC-Perryville, in Goodyear. The death of Marcia Powell was treated as an anomaly by the media - a freak event in which a mentally ill prisoner was locked, mocked, and ignored in a cage in the desert sun for four hours and sadly succumbed to the heat.  The community rallied to assure that her ashes had a final resting place outside of prison, then apparently forgot the other women left behind in that prison, even as some risked everything to send up smoke signals from the desert to get our attention. Few people outside of Perryville knew that Marcia was on a 10-minute suicide watch when she died, by the way.

Marcia's death came as a shock to prison administrators not because she'd been kept in the uncovered cage in the first place, but because other women had been kept in there for extended periods of time before without dying. Mentally ill or unruly women were often locked in there  as punishment, while staff "waited out" their resistance or other behaviors, according to prisoners. One woman had been waited out for 20 hours just a few days earlier and didn't die, Director Ryan observed.  The DOC's solution was simply to retrofit the cages with misters and shade, while the new governor and Director Ryan proceeded to gut the prisons of rehabilitative programs and lead the state in a direction of increasing callousness and brutality towards the state's most disenfranchised people: its prisoners. Nearly all the 16 DOC staff who were disciplined for ignoring Marcia Powell to death retained their jobs and none were prosecuted, though 7 were referred for criminal proceedings. The county declined to prosecute, stating there was "too much conflicting testimony" (prisoners v guards) to be sure of convictions.


I began investigating and documenting conditions in the state prisons soon after Marcia's death, and continue to monitor them. What seemed to be an exceptionally high incidence of suicide and homicides quickly got my attention, so I requested and analyzed the records of all prisoner deaths at the DOC from 2006 through the fall of 2010, when Shannon Palmer was so brutally murdered. I discovered that under Jan Brewer's administration and Charles Ryan's directorship,  the prison homicide and suicides doubled nearly overnight, and has remained that high throughout their tenure.  The assault rate skyrocketed, and detention cells are overflowing with men seeking protection from prison violence because the GP yards are being run by gangs and the Protective Custody yards are packed with those who have already escaped...though not everyone necessarily finds safety there, either. There are even race riots now.

The reasons for this have been hotly debated, with the state's narrative blaming a more violent prisoner population and too many staffing cuts under the previous director, among other things that aren't exactly true. Really, the most appalling cases of neglect occurring in our prisons is not for lack of staff, it's due to a pervasive culture of contempt for human life at the AZ DOC and the consequent gross breaches of duty. That applies to the deaths of not only Anthony Brown but also Marcia Powell, Tony Lester, Susan Lopez, Brenda Todd, Tom Reed, Ferdinand Dix, and so many more prisoners. The staff, it seems, are more criminal than those they are charged with caging and chaining every day.

This soul-sickness that infects the AZ DOC right now won't be healed by new suicide prevention training,  increasing the staff-to-prisoner ratio, or locking more people down in max and supermax settings. It requires new leadership which values the human rights of those who lives it is charged to care for, and embraces the rehabilitative responsibilities of the field of "corrections". Prison-based programs and interventions in the community should be proven effective in reducing both recidivism as well as the  harm done to vulnerable communities and populations by both crime and punishment in America today.  That is not the rule at the DOC - the Good Old Boys network of Chuck Ryan's mentor, former director Terry Stewart, is still dominant with Ryan at the helm now; their attitudes and methods of intervention with offenders are barbaric and archaic and ineffective, and it's time for that whole crew to go. Governor Brewer needs to put someone in there who can do the job right.

Thanks again to investigative journalist Wendy Halloran and Channel 12/KPNX for bringing Anthony Brown's story to light...

By Wendy Halloran 12 News | Sat Apr 6, 2013 2:42 PM
Attorneys for the widow and daughter of a deceased Arizona prisoner have notified the state that they plan to sue the Department of Corrections for $10 million.

Inmate Anthony Brown’s widow, Jami Brown, and his daughter, Jenna Jumper, contend that Anthony was denied prompt medical treatment after he suffered a skull fracture in October 2012 and bled into his brain after suffering seizure-like symptoms. He was incarcerated in 2005 and was serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated assault. The inmate was eligible for early release from prison later this year.

Anthony Brown was taking morphine prescribed by a prison doctor to help with pain from esophageal cancer. A notice of claim, filed March 29, said a nurse assigned to the Lewis state prison accused Brown of drug-seeking and faking pain. When the prison ran out of morphine on Oct. 4, 2012, the claim said, Brown was switched to a different drug, Lortab. Medical records indicate he began to exhibit bizarre behavior after the medication was changed.

Prison officials found him unresponsive in his cell on Oct. 7, 2012. According to Corrections records, when officers called for help, the nurse on duty refused to go to the cell. Brown suffered a heart attack and died the next day at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

A notice of claim is a precursor to a lawsuit, putting those named on notice that a lawsuit is intended to be filed in Maricopa County Superior Court. Those named include the Department of Corrections, Wexford Health Sources, which at the time was contracted with Arizona to provide medical care at state prisons, and Wexford medical staff.

Corrections officials declined to comment on the notice of claim. Wexford said in a statement issued Saturday that it was confident the company and its employees acted appropriately.

"And further investigation of this claim will demonstrate and prove the lack of any wrongdoing or negligence by Wexford Health," Wexford attorney Ed Hochuli said in the statement.