a free Marcia Powell in 2008
on Van Buren and 16th st, downtown Phoenix
Photo by Gary Millard
As many of my friends in Phoenix know, from time to time over the course of the past few years an awesome Australian filmmaker by the name of PJ Starr has come out to visit me and film area activists for her documentary about the death of Marcia Powell - the catalyst for Arizona Prison Watch to be born in the summer of 2009.
Well, folks, it's finally almost done. We need some help to finish it, though, so please give if you can - there's an Indigogo fund set up for it, and we can really use your help. The title of the film comes from a time when the cops would document homicide victims as being male or female; in the case of prostitutes, however, they would write "NO HUMAN INVOLVED".
Here's PJ talking about "No Human Involved", along with the trailer - it looks really compelling.
Thanks to Ruth Jacobs for this interview.
Please help Free Marcia Powell, and visit the Indigogo page...
Can you tell me about your current project No Human Involved?
PJ Starr – picture taken during filming
Photo credit: Mike Shipley
In 2009 my friend and colleague Cris
Sardina (who is now the co-coordinator of the Desiree Alliance) sent me
an email about the death of Marcia Powell in Perryville Prison outside
of Phoenix, Arizona. Marcia had been serving a 27 month sentence for
solicitation of prostitution and corrections officers had left her out
in the sun in a metal cage in searing heat until she collapsed. Soon
after, in hospital her life was ended when the Director of Arizona
Department of Corrections removed her from life support.
Cris Sardina of Desiree Alliance holding pictures of Marcia Powell
Photo credit: PJ Starr
After reading about what happened, Marcia’s story was always with me.
Later in 2010 at the Filmmakers’
Collaborative at the Maysles Institute in Harlem, NYC, I began to
develop the idea of investigating Marcia’s case as a potential
documentary film. Many of my peers at Maysles—who were people with a lot
of community organizing knowledge already—were quite astounded by the
sentence she was serving and what had happened to her. I knew then that
documenting what had happened to Marcia Powell could be a vital step in
educating the general public about the real harms caused to people in
the sex trade by the prison industrial complex.
It was a departure for me to embark on
this documentary for a wide range of reasons. In 2010 I didn’t know
anyone in Phoenix, I wasn’t acquainted with the organizing there and I
didn’t know Marcia personally either. My previous work had always been
with folks I had known for years. But my film mentor Carol Leigh
encouraged me to try this new step and connected me to several key
activists in Phoenix, most importantly with Peggy Plews of Arizona
Prison Watch. In March of 2011, I visited Peggy and several other the
local activists to ask if they thought the film should be made and if my
approach appealed to them. I knew from being involved in grassroots
organizing that so often “outside experts” suck the energy out of
community to “tell a news story” or make a film and this was something I
wanted to avoid doing. Everything fell into place during that first
journey, we all were on the same page. People were also beginning to
reflect on how Marcia’s death had set a series of events in motion and
wanted to talk about that in the context of a documentary.
What do you hope this project will achieve?
Chalking by Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch
I want people to understand that what
happened to Marcia can happen again. The film is not about an isolated,
shocking incident (even though the case is horrific), rather it explores
an example that exposes the system. As a member of Phoenix Food Not
Bombs said at Marcia’s memorial service in 2009, “this has happened
before, it will happen again, it happens to men, women and transgender
people.” There is a mistaken belief amongst concerned people out there
that somehow going to prison can “turn someone’s life around” and help
people “escape” prostitution or drug use. So, the first part of the
message of NO HUMAN INVOLVED is that prison is not safe, you don’t get
comprehensive services there, you are dehumanized. If you are a woman
who doesn’t conform to a very narrow set of gender norms set out in
prison, you are at greater risk, or if you are trans, or queer, or if
you have a mental health issue. The second part is that a web of
terrible laws and policies—ranging from statutes to prevent walking and
sleeping in public space and surviving through sex work—are sending
people to prison for very long periods of time under mandatory
sentencing. And to spell out the point, I think there are many, many
people in the general public who want women like Marcia to “be helped”
but they don’t yet understand the real functioning of the law, how
policing happens, what happens to you in the court room and the system
that classifies you once you are inside a prison. NO HUMAN INVOLVED
unpacks all of this step by step so that audiences can think differently
about what needs to change. The film is also raises awareness about the
sheer numbers of people being arrested under the current
criminalization of the sex trade in Arizona and the sheer numbers of
people being placed in jails and prisons for doing what they need to
Can you share about the research you’ve undertaken to get this off the ground?
When I first started developing the film
idea in 2010 and early 2011, I read a lot of online materials and
reports about Marcia’s death. Since then the ACLU Arizona has published
some very important documents about the experiences of prisoners that
also form background information for the film. Over time NO HUMAN
INVOLVED has evolved into very much a community project. Even though I
have experience in doing research, finding accurate information relating
to incarceration has been a learning curve and I am in awe of what
folks in Phoenix can do. A colleague in Arizona has shown me how to
request extremely detailed information from Arizona Department of
Corrections and my good friend Monica Jones not only explained how the
courts function in Arizona but encouraged me to find recordings and
video tapes of Marcia’s court appearances. Kini Seawright (of the
Seawright Prison Justice Project), has helped me seek out connections in
the activist community to find people who personally knew Marcia. Kini
keeps me putting my heart into the film. I’ve spoken to scores of people
to record background interviews, including some with amazing women who
were in Perryville with Marcia who have shared about who she was and how
she was treated. I’ve met and interviewed people from the corrections
system and a local filmmaker gave me truly vital original footage of
Charles Ryan (the director of the Department of Corrections) speaking
about the case at a memorial for Marcia organized by activists in 2009.
In order to document how the community has responded in the years since
Marcia’s death, I’ve attended (and filmed) church services, memorials,
meetings at local women’s groups, rallies, actions, I’ve filmed (with
permission) in the court and spoken to law enforcement. I’ve seen (and
documented) the emergence of SWOP Phoenix as a presence to challenge the
policing practices that put Marcia on that path to Perryville Prison.
What stage is the project at currently?
I am working with a very dedicated editor
in the NYC area on the second cut of the film. Once we have enough
funding, we will refine it, and create the DVD to begin the film’s
distribution. As with most films these days NO HUMAN INVOLVED has been a
labor of love (ie unfunded) but there are certain things such as
mastering the DVD that I need to have done professionally in order to
get Marcia’s story the attention it deserves.
Are you looking for people to be involved?
If folks are on social media they should follow/like the NO HUMAN INVOLVED project on Facebook
or send me an email to get updates as the film is completed and released. Currently I am hosting the first online fundraiser
I have ever done to support one of my own creative projects to raise
what we need for the absolutely essential things that a really polished
documentary needs. Donations are tax deductible and every cent will be
going back to support the film.
In the future as we plan actions and
connect to campaigns related to the film, there will be many other
things for people to engage with so please find a way to get in touch. I
am also always happy to share what I have learned with others in the
community so if a reader wants support in developing a rights based
project related to the theme of NO HUMAN INVOLVED then I am happy to do
as much as I can to share information, skills and connections.
Who is the target audience and what message do you want them to take away with them?
this film I am taking a step out to interface with people who may know a
little about the impact of incarceration but who have not yet had a
chance to connect the dots about anti-prostitution policies, policing,
the prison industrial complex and people in the community who also
happen to be engaged (or profiled as engaging) in sex work. And even
though as rights based activists we have collectively made enormous
strides in explaining all of this, I am sure that there is a very large
number of people out there who want to do the right thing by the
communities of people mentioned in the film (sex workers, people with
mental health issues, people with experiences of incarceration) but need
more information. The film is a rights project engaging with the
audience to explain that prisons are not a solution and that human
rights, not “rescue” by the police, are what work best. The phrase “no
human involved” indicates that the powers that be are not interested in
investigating violence committed against certain groups of people
because their lives are considered unimportant. The documentary NO HUMAN
INVOLVED reaffirms Marcia’s humanity and is an investigation of its own
kind. Finally, the phrase “free Marcia Powell” (first used by Peggy
Plews of Arizona Prison Watch) is repeated throughout the film and will
anchor social media strategies in a call for liberation of Marcia’s
spirit and all those who are still incarcerated.
What are your plans for the future?
Once NO HUMAN INVOLVED is completed, I
will turn my activist attention to ensuring the film leads to the change
that we intend. But I am also beginning to work on another project with
Monica and some other people in Phoenix.
Where can people find out more about your project?
Recommended websites/further reading:
For very honest and insightful
information from someone who has worked within the Department of
Corrections at a senior level, I recommend the various writings of Carl Toersbijns
To support the final phase of producing the documentary NO HUMAN INVOLVED click here to donate to the Indiegogo campaign.