For many years, official police reports identified murdered prostitutes with the phrase
"No human involved."
marking the 2009 International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
Dear Friends of Marcia Powell:
I went to the Maricopa County Attorney's office yesterday and requested an appointment with Rick Romley to discuss the prosecution of those responsible for Marcia's death. I was deflected by a detective who knew next to nothing about the case, and sent me off to tell the state to do a better investigation for them, suggesting that they can still file charges later. I wasn't satisfied with that, but wasn't about to fight the guy to Romley's door - he was pretty big and wore a gun.
So, after visiting AZ Attorney General Goddard's office to be sure they can't do anything (they denied any jurisdiction, deferring to the MCA), I came home and wrote this letter. I hand-delivered it to Romley's office this morning.
Admittedly, I probably should have tried this before chalking up the MCA's sidewalks last week and posting my art, but I guess I needed to get it out of my system in order to articulate myself. I think this is the right thing to do, though I can't help but feel like I'm betraying some of my abolitionist principles by arguing for criminal prosecution. If anyone has any ideas about what transformative justice might look like in this community for the guards who killed Marcia Powell, let me know. I just don't want to empower or embolden them - or any other officer - to hurt prisoners again.
Anyway, this may end what I had left of secrets or a private life, but the truth about why I could have ended up in that cage myself seemed important to tell. I'm not entirely proud of all the decisions I've made in my life, but Arundhati Roy's closing quote is on my letterhead precisely because I believe we should never have to be ashamed to tell our stories. If we cower in silence and fear, then how else will others be free to tell theirs? We must assert that - whatever else we may be called - we are humans involved if we are to challenge the stigma that allows women like Marcia to be so readily discounted and ignored.
September 8, 2010
Richard M. Romley
Maricopa County Attorney
301 West Jefferson St.
Phoenix, AZ 85003
Dear Mr. Romley,
My name is Peggy Plews; I’m a friend of Marcia Powell’s. We didn’t actually meet before she died, but I immediately identified with her life story. As an alcoholic, drug-addicted, manic depressive, troublemaking survivor of childhood abuse and sexual assault, I was thrown out and dropped out of high school, sold myself for a high on more than one occasion, and ended up institutionalized before I was 20.
I was fortunate enough to end up in AA at that time, or I would have soon been criminalized like Marcia, if I even survived much longer. My recovery over the years has been a challenge; since the 2001 death of my little brother and the suicide of a man I loved, my mood disorder has been severe enough that I’ve had several episodes of relapse and extended periods of disability. Some of the medications I’ve been on have made me gravely ill. As an alternative, I went a year without meds, and even tried electroconvulsive shock therapy. Neither strategy was very effective; the latter caused lasting damage to my memory and cognitive abilities.
By the time of Marcia’s death, however, I’d been regaining my functioning for a couple of years, and was enrolled at ASU, 3 credits away from earning my degree in Justice Studies. Most of my academic inquiry around that time was in the history of slavery, women’s resistance to oppression, social movements in America, and the evolution of the contemporary prison industrial complex. By the time my Winter 2009 semester concluded, I was an avowed - albeit an imperfect - prison abolitionist, and just beginning to cast my gaze around my own community again. Hence my intensely personal reaction when I learned of Marcia‘s death.
Not quite sure how to cope with the grief and powerlessness I felt, I began to blog as one vehicle for both public education and advocacy. Needing to find others who shared my interests and concerns about our jails and prisons, I also organized with some of the community members I met at memorial services in the weeks that followed Marcia’s death to explore ways we could make a positive difference in how prisoners are treated and regarded, and in how the criminal justice system here works. We came to call ourselves the “Friends of Marcia Powell”, which is a much broader, looser network now that includes everyone from young Phoenix anarchists to international prison watchers to leaders in the movement for the wrongfully convicted to Republicans with kids in Arizona prisons. Of all of us, though, I am the one who could have most easily been Marcia Powell.
I still can be, in fact. I am regarded by some, I’m sure (particularly those at the AZ Department of Corrections) as a public nuisance; certainly as a dogged critic of state policies and people in power. I suspect I have not endeared myself to anyone but left wing radicals and outlaws, and - given my personal history - I’d be pretty vulnerable to malicious prosecution by any of my adversaries’ good buddies, as I understand Mr. Montgomery is.
I could also just as easily relapse or lose my mind and get arrested and prosecuted for a real crime. Once in prison, given my politics, I’d be in trouble all the time - and sure to be punished outside of policy guidelines from time to time. So, I have a vested interest in the outcome of your investigation and - hopefully - prosecutions: I don’t want those people to have power over my life after what they’ve done to Marcia.
Given that the constitutional rights we infer on crime victims in this state don’t apply to people who - like Marcia - are victimized while “in custody for an offense”, it’s no wonder that prisoners of the state and county alike are so often brutalized and neglected. Prisoners and ex-felons have fewer rights and protections than animals, while perpetrators of violent crimes against them are given far more benefit of the doubt by your office than the rest of us would be. Failing to prosecute anyone for the death of Marcia Powell will certainly facilitate justifications for prisoner abuse in the future by brutal, cruel, and careless people in uniform who think they will be immune to criminal sanctions. It also further erodes the public’s trust that “justice” in America is for all, not just for the privileged few.
As I suspect you know, people like Thomas, Arpaio, and Pearce have also done grave damage to the integrity and credibility of Arizona’s criminal justice system, and consequently, to the ability of many people to have any faith in law makers or enforcers anymore. Not prosecuting those responsible for the death of Marcia Powell just reaffirms that the lives of the most disenfranchised and vulnerable among us here are truly disposable in the eyes of the law - which earns only my disgust and contempt. That is where some of the rage directed at police by youth during the Anti-Arpaio march comes from - it’s a deep fracture that can’t be healed by punishing them - it needs to be addressed at the source.
In the meantime, those individuals already identified in an internal investigation as being criminally negligent in Marcia’s death are minimizing the harm they did and fighting to get their jobs back, some returning to the same prison yard with the same duties and powers they had when they killed her. That speaks volumes about the justice system to those prisoners who witnessed their incompetence or cruelty that day, and will now be subjected to it themselves again.
In light of that development, how is a prisoner who is raped ever supposed to have confidence that her complaint will be taken seriously, and that her assailant will be prosecuted instead of returned to a position of power over her? Why would any of those women have any confidence at all that the Maricopa County Attorney’s office makes a good faith effort to protect victims and seek justice, if the only people they see you punish are the poor and powerless or political enemies? As you should know, as many as 80% of women in prison have themselves been victims of crime already - and many will be again.
For these reasons I came by your office today in an attempt to schedule an appointment to meet with you, to personally implore you to take another look at Marcia’s case. Your office is prosecuting all sorts of people on less evidence, or with more contradictory testimony, than that which has been collected thus far in this case. You are threatening several Friends of Marcia Powell’s with prosecution as violent criminals - with prison time, if they don’t plead out - for their antagonism of police at the January Anti-Arpaio rally. What does it say to those young people - and their entire community - if you then won’t charge ADC officers for their role in Marcia’s death? She was far more helpless a victim than armed police on horseback or in riot gear. She suffered horribly due to those officers’ neglect; her body even had second degree burns on it from the sun. None of the Arpaio 5 hurt anyone like that, nor would they. You have the wrong dangerous criminals in your sights.
Please bring charges against those officers who are most implicated and let them put on their defense - what have you lost if some prove their innocence? You will have at least shown that human lives like Marcia’s matter as much as fallen K-9 dogs. You will help set a higher standard of expectations for the conduct of corrections and law enforcement officers in regards to their treatment of prisoners. And before you leave your post, you will teach this community to expect more from the county attorney’s office than we’ve been able to expect for years. Given who will be taking your place, that’s a vital, powerful tool for the people to have, lest we all become victims of that office again.
I can be contacted at the number and email above if you are willing to meet; I have a couple of other issues I‘d like to discuss, too. I’d very much like your help crafting a bill and lobbying the legislature to strengthen the rights of Arizona prisoners to be protected from neglect and abuse; you have credibility that my friends and I lack due to your reputation in law enforcement. We plan to make “Marcia’s Law” a visible issue this fall, such that it gets raised on the campaign trail and is in the forefront of everyone’s minds by the time the legislature reconvenes. If it is not initiated now, while the incident is still fresh in the community’s collective heart and mind, it will never be realized.
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter. I hope to hear from you soon.
Margaret Jean Plews
"Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness, and our ability to tell our own stories..."
- Arundhati Roy