In case anyone plans to write thoughtful letters to policy-makers, here are a few concrete ideas to raise, from the American Friends Service Committee in Tucson. This list has more to do with the community than the prisons, so does not address the issue of abuse and neglect, sexual exploitation, or poor health care services in AZ prisons, but it sees a future with fewer - not more - people in Arizona prisons, and addresses some critical reforms that could help reduce over-crowding and many of its attendant consequences for both prisoners and corrections officers.
Once a prison is built, the state must keep it full. This is particularly true of privately operated prisons, whose contracts explicitly stipulate 90% occupancy. New prison construction reduces our opportunities to have a meaningful discussion on sentencing reform. We need fewer prisons and more treatment and diversion programs.
2. Eliminate so-called truth in sentencing laws or reduce the percentage of time inmates must serve.
During the tough-on-crime '90's, many states passed truth in sentencing laws that eliminated the use of parole. In Arizona, prisoners sentenced under these laws must serve 85% of their sentence, regardless of their efforts toward rehabilitation or their real risk to the public. Many other states are now revisiting these laws and lowering the minimum percentage that prisoners must serve.
3. Amend mandatory minimums for drug and other low-level offenses.
Many drug offenders are sentenced under mandatory minimum sentences, which remove discretion from judges by mandating the terms people must serve. Most drug offenders are non-violent and would be better served in treatment programs, which are cheaper and more effective.
4. Re-think harsh DUI sentences.
While no one would argue against keeping drunken drivers off the road, prison sentences without meaningful treatment do virtually nothing to address the problem of DUI. Instead of spending $21,000 per person per year on incarceration, these offenders would be better served in community-based alcohol treatment to address the issues that led to their alcohol dependency.
5. Establish alternative sentencing programs and expand use of diversion programs that work.
There are hundreds of effective alternative sentencing models in other states. Plus, there are programs already in place in some cities in Arizona, such as Drug and DUI Courts, and programs that are on the books but are underused, such as work release programs. These programs have proven to be successful at reducing recidivism and are far less costly than incarceration.
6. Reduce the number of probation revocations due to technical violations.
About 20% of all admissions to the Department of Corrections are people who committed technical violations of the terms of their probation. These are not people who commit new crimes. These are people who missed an appointment with their probation officer or tested positive on a drug test. Probation departments can develop new programs to hold violators accountable for their actions without having to return them to prison. Another option is "shock incarceration," where violators are returned to prison for a short period (120 days), but then put back on probation in the community.
7. Improve the treatment and educational services provided to prisoners while they are incarcerated.
Our recidivism numbers would be significantly lowered if prisoners were provided with the skills and services they need to become productive citizens. Simple warehousing that ignores the root causes of crime commits us to a never-ending cycle of incarceration and wastes millions of tax dollars every year.
8. Provide well-funded re-entry services to released inmates.
Most prisoners are sent out the prison gates with no more than a check for $50 that they have no means of cashing. Widespread discrimination against people with felony convictions makes it very difficult for former prisoners to find stable housing and decent jobs. People with drug convictions are barred from receiving public assistance or Section 8 housing. As mentioned above, many of them did not have an opportunity to effectively address their addictions, abuse histories, or lack of education while incarcerated. Is it any surprise that so many of them return to prison?
Retiring Arizona Prison Watch...
This site was originally started in July 2009 as an independent endeavor to monitor conditions in Arizona's criminal justice system, as well as offer some critical analysis of the prison industrial complex from a prison abolitionist/anarchist's perspective. It was begun in the aftermath of the death of Marcia Powell, a 48 year old AZ state prisoner who was left in an outdoor cage in the desert sun for over four hours while on a 10-minute suicide watch. That was at ASPC-Perryville, in Goodyear, AZ, in May 2009.
Marcia, a seriously mentally ill woman with a meth habit sentenced to the minimum mandatory 27 months in prison for prostitution was already deemed by society as disposable. She was therefore easily ignored by numerous prison officers as she pleaded for water and relief from the sun for four hours. She was ultimately found collapsed in her own feces, with second degree burns on her body, her organs failing, and her body exceeding the 108 degrees the thermometer would record. 16 officers and staff were disciplined for her death, but no one was ever prosecuted for her homicide. Her story is here.
Marcia's death and this blog compelled me to work for the next 5 1/2 years to document and challenge the prison industrial complex in AZ, most specifically as manifested in the Arizona Department of Corrections. I corresponded with over 1,000 prisoners in that time, as well as many of their loved ones, offering all what resources I could find for fighting the AZ DOC themselves - most regarding their health or matters of personal safety.
I also began to work with the survivors of prison violence, as I often heard from the loved ones of the dead, and learned their stories. During that time I memorialized the Ghosts of Jan Brewer - state prisoners under her regime who were lost to neglect, suicide or violence - across the city's sidewalks in large chalk murals. Some of that art is here.
In November 2014 I left Phoenix abruptly to care for my family. By early 2015 I was no longer keeping up this blog site, save occasional posts about a young prisoner in solitary confinement in Arpaio's jail, Jessie B.
I'm deeply grateful to the prisoners who educated, confided in, and encouraged me throughout the years I did this work. My life has been made all the more rich and meaningful by their engagement.
I've linked to some posts about advocating for state prisoner health and safety to the right, as well as other resources for families and friends. If you are in need of additional assistance fighting the prison industrial complex in Arizona - or if you care to offer some aid to the cause - please contact the Phoenix Anarchist Black Cross at PO Box 7241 / Tempe, AZ 85281. firstname.lastname@example.org
until all are free -
MARGARET J PLEWS (June 1, 2015)
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