Here's to Truth, Peace and Justice - may all prevail in the New Year.
I fell asleep Christmas Eve wishing I'd organized some anarchists to go caroling out at Perryville prison this week; just something to let them know they aren't alone out there. The mothers out there in particular have been on my mind lately, as have their heartbroken parents and children. Because of the tracking mechanisms on my blogs I can tap into what people are Googling for, which - as the holidays have approached - has with increasing urgency been "early prisoner release." I had all sorts of stuff up from other states, but all they kept coming up with from me on Arizona was some sidewalk chalking, pleading with legislators, and quite a bit of after-the-fact chastising of Director Ryan.
When I woke up Christmas morning they were still on my mind: all those families that had been holding their breath as states across the country began early release programs for low-risk prisoners, only to have our legislature and governor, in the end, release non-citizens so they can be deported. Our state and prisoners' families are being crushed by the cost of their incarceration - we're even taking money from education and children's health care in order to keep filling up the prisons - and that's the most creative solution anyone could come up with? Deporting a few hundred immigrants that they gave Sheriff Joe and Andrew Thomas all sorts of money to chase down and prosecute for smuggling themselves?
Cowards. They won't even release the dying. Even we (prisoners and advocates) would allow that not every ADC officer is so malicious or callous that they would be complicit in Marcia's death just because 16 on one shift were (that must be worse than the criminality of most people requesting compassionate releases). The Department of Corrections seems to think that was an isolated incident that shouldn't reflect on the rest of the gang. In light of that, our legislators should at least grant that not every dying prisoner is a Maurice Clemmons or Baseline Killer just waiting for their final spree. Nor are they molesters-in-waiting, like the latest Arizona parolee disaster, apparently. I wonder how much of the monster in him was made by prison. Most of the terminally ill - the healthy, for that matter, as well - really just want to make amends and die in peace. You never hear about them. They should not be punished for his crimes.
But they probably will be. We all will. Since they'd sooner spend our grandchildren's inheritance to make even low-risk prisoners die on mandatory minimums than take the risk of sending them home in a wheelchair to their families, why would I think our elected officials would have the courage to support an early release program for people who aren't even dying? It has nothing to do with statistics or real crime or even economics, since dying prisoners can cost the state the most. It's all about covering their own seats - which are coming up for re-election. Everyone wants to be "tough on crime," which always translates into criminalizing and incarcerating more of the poor and does nothing meaningful to address the roots of crime. That's not tough - that's just thick-headed. It's the smart-on-crime people we need to be electing here, not the ones exploiting fear at the expense of future victims...we need to stop this here.
I think we need to hammer the AG and gubernatorial candidates about compassionate release this year - and it should be coming from the cancer survivor and hospice community, too, not just the families and advocates of prisoners. Victims' rights advocates should get on board, too, if they consider how many victims are criminalized and how many criminals are victimized by the system we call justice in this state. Every prisoner dying inside who should be eligible for compassionate release is a story that needs to be told - otherwise the only story that speaks for them is the one about Clemmons - or Ladwig - and that one will be retold every election year unless we drown it out with the truth: there is more than one narrative on crime and punishment - there are better ways to prevent evil than perpetrating it.
Anyway, having failed to do anything meaningful for the state's prisoners for Christmas, I turned again to the symbolic, and decided to deliver a big Christmas card and some flowers to the women at Perryville yesterday. That place is huge. According to one of the officers, it's getting bigger: those are the great plans our legislature has made for Arizona's future - more women in prison. I drove around for awhile trying to figure out who and where to deliver it to - finally decided to take a picture of it by the prison sign, on the outside chance that no one would let me deliver to anyone there at all.
I was right - I couldn't even leave it there if I was leaving it for the warden, much less for the prisoners - I'd have to come back during regular business hours. Their supervisor even came out to see what this thing with the Friends of Marcia Powell was all about. He took down my name and gave me the phone number of someone I could call next week who would direct me to the right person to give the card to. I thought "warden" should be designation enough to get it to the person who would decide what to do with it, if I wrote it on the card instead of "prisoners". But it wasn't. What was I thinking?
I don't know how many people have tried to pull off a Christmas Day surprise like that, but "the next business day" just doesn't work. I took my card and got back into my car, stopping by my friend's place on my way home to give her the bouquet. She was out at Perryville for a couple of years; she appreciated what I tried to do.
The card, by the way, was a great big copy of the letter that the Sex Workers' Outreach Project had written to Director Ryan about improving protections for prisoner rights, among other things. A bunch of us signed it at the demonstration, and I figured that since he already got his copy (and apparently ignored it) we should give one to the prisoners so they knew they had some support out here.
I was hoping to get it onto Lumley - the maximum security unit where Marcia was last at, where the women who set their mattresses on fire were from, and where the officer worked who suicided last June. I guess I'm just lucky I got in and out of the front lobby myself without provoking anyone, though. I should probably apologize to the officers on duty last night for showing up and being a distraction. I mean, it seemed like they would be posted at the front door specifically to deal with the public - which includes me - so I didn't think it would be problematic to ask them if there was someone I could leave the card and flowers with. But I could have just taken a couple of photos outside and gone without disturbing them, so, my apologies, Lt. Farr and crew. I really wasn't there just to play with you. I hoped someone would take our card (though I admit I suspected that solidarity and encouragement from the outside might be considered contraband, even on Christmas). I guess it's probably a good thing I didn't show up singing with a bunch of anarchists instead.
Anyway, families and friends will just have to spread the word among the prisoners that Perryville had a Christmas visitor bringing tidings of goodwill and human rights, but they wouldn't let her in. You can print up the letter to Ryan from the free marcia powell archives here, though, and mail it in. Here is the report of the actual demonstration, with photos, in case you missed it. You could also print up the photo I took of the card, here:
Dear Director Ryan: Protect Human Rights.
(Since you insist on keeping your prisoners, please keep them safe.)
Since this post will probably sit here for a couple of days at the top of the page now as my holiday message, I don't want to close it on an angry or cynical note. So, I'll turn my attention to the ADC staff I don't speak much of. Just about every story I've heard from Perryville - even Marcia's - has with it the name of an officer or staff member who was the exception to the rule of mocking, ridiculing, ignoring women, and "waiting them out" until they stopped resisting or finally died. The good guys know who they are, as do all the prisoners and their families. Everyone else does, too, and I imagine some of you take a hit for being too soft sometimes. I would hope you also get promoted (though we do aim to put you out of that particular line of business). Even little things - like a smile - expose the Light in you. We need that light to see through all this - in that way, soft has more power than a lot of people give it credit for. Gentle can be more strong than tough.
In fact, for the more resilient prisoners your simple daily acts of grace and kindness can do more good than all the cruelty that goes on there can do them harm. For the respect, encouragement, insight, hope, and humanity you have shared with the most disparaged among us - whatever your position or reason for working there may be - thank you. Your presence may well have saved a loved one from another endless day of their own despair, or even from suicide. I'm sorry there clearly aren't enough of you, though. The damaged souls and successful suicides who roll out of prison are evidence of that.
Some of you have taken a hit by placing yourselves between our loved ones and violence - both state and interpersonal. You aren't afraid to speak of things like human rights, and you treat imprisoned women with basic dignity regardless of what kind of deviance they've been convicted of. You may not call it by the name I do, but you recognize the monster that feeds your family for what it is, and as law-and-order as you may be, you - like me - long for the day it outlives its apparent need. You may even be the first to help slay it then.
Those of you I speak of here are real public servants, far more committed to justice than the people who pull it out for campaigns, lynch a few bad guys, and ride fear into office so they can make new laws to better suit themselves - all the while gutting your unions with parallel (not competitive) privatization, and reducing your relative incomes and benefits to subsistence levels so you can't rise up against them once everyone finally catches on. I'm shocked at how many law enforcement unions have endorsed Pearce for that reason - he's all about busting the unions - he just thinks he doesn't have to worry about cops because they've been co-opted by his pandering and posturing. I hope you all end up proving him wrong.
It's odd that politicians so often invoke biblical references in the discourse about law and order: whatever one may think about Christ, his most beloved were the convicted and condemned, and his version of justice is the new and revised one. He embraced robbers and prostitutes and thieves irrelevant of their crimes: he recognized that the far greater danger was the injustice doled out to the powerless by the entitled than that posed by the few criminals who rose from the masses in resistance to civil society. It was the moneylenders' tables he upended, after all - he wasn't off chasing immigrants. Boy, would he have a few things to say about that today. Actually, I'm sure he already said them. Considering how many people in this state consider themselves Christians, I don't understand why we have so many prisons. I guess people call themselves Christians for different reasons. Claiming such a faith seems to have a political advantage, even if there's no evidence one really lives it.
Christ was incorrigible - a classic repeat offender, all the more "dangerous" to the state because he acted out of a politic of liberation, not self-interest or greed (thus he could not be tortured or bribed into submission). He may not be executed today, but he would be locked down tighter than a Black Panther, in total isolation so as not to spread his message to other people yearning for freedom. We'd bury him alive and alone - for sixty or seventy years if need be - in a cell that serves much like a tomb. That's what we do to our political prisoners in America. Think about it: if he was in for crimes of self-interest he'd be out in half the time. What does that say about us?
Anyway, those of you who use your power to truly help rather than hurt prisoners have paid it forward, and many people down the road will have your backs. You have done more than just your prisoners a service - the community benefits as well if they come out more intact than shattered. I hope you become the model for ADC - for as long as the beast is around - instead of the exception you appear to be. To you and your families I sincerely wish a safe and happy holiday season, a sentiment shared, I suspect, by many.