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.

until all are free -

MARGARET J PLEWS (June 1, 2015)


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Thursday, January 14, 2010

AZ Restorative Justice and Veterans Courts.

I have a problem with specialty-courts, only in that they indicate that our system in general isn't working well for a lot of people, which is why they all need to be diverted. Most of the people we call criminals - including the violent offenders - are survivors of trauma themselves - be it from combat or domestic violence. 

In fact, combat veterans have a higher rate of violent offenses than non-veterans, so the solutions for them aren’t as simple as a special court that sends them to “treatment” would have us think. How accessible is that treatment to veterans, anyway, who are already pretty marginalized? And do we just write off the violent offenders altogether – give them as much prison time as possible and wait for them to reoffend after they’re released? 

Our courts and sentencing mandates don't allow much room for people to breathe when it turns out that they aren't the vicious sociopaths we thought the laws and penalties were going to apply to. Instead we're just scooping up a bunch of ordinary, poor people – a good many of whom are survivors of childhood sexual abuse or other violent crime themselves - and prosecuting them aggressively for their lives, or moments, of desperation. 

That suggests to me that it's time to dismantle and rebuild our justice system from a different framework. What Arizona calls "restorative justice" (from what I can tell, this means financial restitution) is in fact quite harsh and punitive and results in a culmination of stressors that drive the convicted - and their families - deeper into poverty. By allowing for the restitution orders to be set at 4 times the actual value of property lost or cost of injuries accrued, it can easily be employed with vindictiveness, and does nothing to really heal communities.

That's a sign of a twisted system. The state parole system isn’t quite so bad, but I know county probationers who are so beaten down by the relentless efforts at departmental collections that they ask to go back to prison because they can't face another day of trying to survive on the outside, much less support their families for years of having up to 50% of their income garnished. It all comes back to the probation department's prioritization of collections over apparently all other tasks, including that of facilitating the offender’s successful reintegration into the community as law abiding, tax-paying, responsible citizens. No wonder the recidivism rate is so high here. The system is failing us more than the people being chewed up by it are. 

The economic costs of restitution and community supervision can be staggering - and must be paid as part of one’s criminal sentence regardless of one's ability to pay rent, buy medications, or meet other basic needs on what's left with one’s wages. Adjustments are supposed to be made in payment amounts based on actual income and expenses, but don't always happen quickly enough for probationers to keep on top of the required amounts. Failing to do so can result in jail or prison time being added onto the original sentence in addition to restitution requirements, an extension of the period of probation (until all restitution is paid, if the court orders), compounding the prisoners’ debt with the costs associated with their incarceration and their loss of earnings during that time, as well as the costs associated with extended community supervision. 

This seems like a design intended to keep people trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and criminalization – not a way to make amends for harm done to another, or restore damage done to one’s community. 

Our criminal justice system has always been set up so that one class of people have the option to buy their way out of a prison sentence, and another class is condemned by the same laws to indentured servitude and exclusion from community resources both during and after they serve time. I can think of a few restitution arrangements that should constitute cruel and unusual punishment, as they impose consequences far disproportionate to the crimes for which they were sentenced – and I honestly don’t think judges take all the secondary effects of incarceration and restitution and probation arrangements into account when they pass sentences. 

They sure don’t seem to consider how burdening an offender with staggering debt and aggressive collections can have drastic effects on his or her kids’ life opportunities. In that way, the system just creates another generation of victims – the kids being victims of both their parents’ crimes and the state’s cold bottom line.

This kind of punishment - being condemned to a lifetime of state surveillance and control, poverty, and restitution payments - is relentless, and at some point needs to end so people can recover and move forward. They need to focus on rebuilding relationships, staying sober, and getting right with their communities again. That's restorative, and should absolutely include reasonable arrangements for restitution where harm was done. 

But probationers shouldn't be forced to eke out meager existences on the fringes of society and either driven to despair such that they just wan tot return to prison, or are driven back to criminal activity out of desperate attempts to fork over enough money to their PO's so that they can delay being incarcerated for their poverty another week or so, while they hustle up something else. 

All defendants - veterans or not - deserve a better measure of real restorative justice than what our courts are presently so generously meting out. All I’ve seen their kind of justice result in on this end is lives being destroyed all over again.


New court is sought to aid vets charged with crimes

For four years, Cody Batroff was a trained killer fighting for his country.

The former Marine served two tours in Iraq, taking out the enemy and ducking roadside bombs.

Although he excelled on the battlefield, the 26-year-old Phoenix resident had trouble readjusting to civilian life.

"You go from killing people to cutting grass, and that's a reality check," he said.

He was arrested five times in two years, culminating with a DUI and a disorderly conduct charge for what he nonchalantly describes as "standing in my front yard with a firearm, yelling and screaming."

Batroff is serving five months in a Maricopa County jail. Although he won't blame his incarceration on his military service, experts have linked anti-social and criminal behavior with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries suffered by soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Batroff was diagnosed with both.

Court officials recognize a need to treat these soldiers before they get caught up in a cycle of crime.

A coalition of legal officials and advocates for veterans in Maricopa County is considering setting up a special court that would provide vets with the help they need to cope.

That could mean identifying veterans early in the system, connecting them to services the government already provides and linking the vets to a support network.

The goal: Keeping them out of the criminal-justice cycle.

Growing problem 

Veterans advocates, along with judges and attorneys, have launched similar specialty courts in Buffalo, N.Y.; and Orange County, Calif.

Studies have shown that 30 to 40 percent of the 1.6 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will "face serious mental-health injuries" such as PTSD or traumatic brain injury.

Because they have no visible scars of war, victims of those ailments frequently suffer in silence, said Shelly Curran, director of court advocacy with Magellan, which manages the public mental-health system in Maricopa County.

The disorders can lead to higher rates of divorce, drug and alcohol abuse and ultimately incarceration or suicide, she said.

"A lot of what brings veterans into contact with the criminal-justice system is the result of injuries they received while they were serving; their behaviors are so tied to whatever that service-related injury could be," Curran said. "There's a stigma around seeking services, especially when you come from a culture where it's important to be strong. It's less likely for veterans to ask for help."

The idea behind the veterans court is to identify former soldiers and get them the help they deserve, Curran said.

The exploratory group, headed by retired Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields, is looking at the court system in Buffalo, which identifies and diverts veterans who commit misdemeanor offenses into a program that offers them counseling and other support services for a time and allows the soldiers to plead to a lesser crime.

It will be months before the committee here gets through the exploratory phase, and it could be longer before veterans advocates, court officials and prosecutors develop the framework to start a similar court here.

The committee is trying to determine how many veterans, such as Batroff, are locked up in Maricopa County.

That figure is hard to come by, largely because officials generally don't ask the question until the defendant is sentenced, if then.

However, a snapshot of adults going through probation in the county during the first six months of last year found that more than 400 people, or more than 7 percent, had served in the armed forces.

With nearly 600,000 veterans in Arizona, experts say, those numbers will likely increase as more return home from the wars.

"One of the things that offended me is seeing a veteran who is self-medicating with alcohol or marijuana or meth and going to court and standing side by side with some gangbanger or lifetime criminal and being treated the same as them," said Billy Little, an attorney and retired Air Force colonel. "If you can tie the alleged criminal activity to their service, to us, I thought they deserved better than that."

Little, along with others in the legal community, have pushed for the specialty-court idea and worked with Superior Court Presiding Judge Barbara Mundell to launch the effort.

Next steps

The exploratory committee, which includes representatives from the courts, adult probation, veterans advocates, mental-health providers and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, hope to present a proposal to Mundell by summer. Fields said the courts likely would not come at any additional costs to the court system.

Although the idea has support among veterans advocates and court officials, it's not a slam dunk.
The County Attorney's Office has questioned whether a suspect deserves to be treated any differently because he or she served in the military and whether the court would work with those who commit serious felonies or only lower-level crimes.

County Attorney Andrew Thomas' office has consistently come out against specialty courts, such as a Spanish-language DUI court, that offer services to certain suspects. But the office has not determined its stance on a potential veterans court.

"Justice is supposed to be blind," said Barnett Lotstein, a special assistant county attorney. "We have great respect for our veterans, obviously. If it can be shown that a veterans court is not only in the interest of the defendants and the body public, there may be some benefit, unlike the race-based courts, which we are absolutely opposed."

(finish article at AZ Republic)


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