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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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Erec Toso: "Life writing" at ASPC-Tucson

Neto's Tucson: Writing professor helps inmates find a purposeful voice

Every Saturday, University of Arizona English professor Erec Toso packs paper, books and pencils into boxes, and drives to the classroom. But before he enters, Toso walks through a gauntlet of armed guards and locked doors.

His classroom is in the Arizona State Prison on Wilmot Road, southeast of Tucson. He voluntarily teaches writing to inmates.

For the past year, Toso, 53, has taught poetry and prose through the creative writing workshops that retired UA regents English professor Richard Shelton and his wife, Lois, began in 1974.

With the exception of a couple of Saturdays, Toso has met every week with inmates, at two different units, not only teaching but helping inmates develop their writing skills. Since the privately funded workshops' inception, a number of inmates have had their poems and stories published in various journals, including Walking Rain Review, produced by inmates and ex-inmates of the state's prisons.

"What makes this work is trust," said Toso.

It's a trust that goes both ways. The inmates trust Toso to show up every week and Toso trusts the inmates, will focus on metaphors, haikus, narratives and other components of writing and genres.

Since its started, the creative-writing program has produced successful writers, even if they remain incarcerated.

A few of the graduates have become published authors, including Jimmy Santiago Baca and Ken Lamberton.

Shelton and Lamberton are editors of Ocotillo Review, the workshop literary journal that will replace Walking Rain. The Lannan Foundation of Santa Fe and the UA Poetry Center support the workshops and publication of the journal.

While most people outside the prisons' razor wire fences dismiss inmates because of their crimes, Toso welcomes those who want to learn and write.

"They made mistakes," said Toso. "But that's only a small part of who they are."

Writing gives the workshop participants the opportunity to "free" themselves through their writing.

"Some guys come to the workshops because their lives depend on it," he said - not literally, maybe, but figuratively.

Toso said they are all motivated, much more than many of his UA students. There is a waiting list for the prison workshops.

The workshop writers are hungry to write and to have others, through the workshop critique process, help shape and improve their work, said Toso.

The inmates don't dwell on their prison experience in their writing but take a wider, deeper view. Toso called it "life writing."

Toso was born in Sierra Vista, the son of a career Army officer. But by high school his family lived in Wisconsin, where he attended college.

He returned to the desert to earn graduate degrees at the UA. He taught English in Mexico, and at Tucson and University high schools before joining the UA faculty. Toso authored "Zero at the Bone - Rewriting Life After a Snakebite," published by the UA Press in 2007. He also has published works in literary journals.

This is not Toso's first entry to teach in prisons. In the mid-1980s for two years he taught in prison through the Pima County Adult Education program.

Teaching literacy is what Toso does.

And he believes teaching writing to inmates serves us in the long run. It gives inmates a positive purpose, even in their confined lives.

The writing requires participants to get honest and self-critical, with a goal of making better choices. And the writing experience, he said, offers them redemption.

"It's a life-changing experience," he said. "Even if they never publish anything, it's time well spent."

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at or 573-4187.