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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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

ToersBijns: Burying us alive - Mentally Ill in Supermax

Another excellent post from former ASPC-Eyman (SMU) Deputy Warden Carl ToersBijns painfully detailing the experience of prisoners in solitary confinement and supermax settings, too many of whom are there because of the symptoms of their mental illnesses, not their criminality. His analysis of the dysfunctional management techniques used by corrections officers and administrators validates my own suspicions and observations; Carl knows of what he speaks.

Here is also the troubling 2007 report on solitary confinement in Arizona done by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), "Buried Alive". We have yet to make any headway in ending the practice here.


The Truth About Solitaire, Isolation, Deprivation, (SID) Prisoners
Mentally Ill Inside Max Custody

By Carl ToersBijns

Prisons designed for maximum security are instant isolation units merely by their design. The fact that maximum custody is designated to hold the "Worst of the Worst" is most misleading if anyone who worked in such an environment will testify to under oath. Following the road to this endless road to nowhere, you must first understand the dynamics involved to create this horde of thousands of human beings that are confined inside these cracker boxes designed for no human being to escape from.

Excluding those on death row, and crimes that are hideous and forever unforgivable, there are many locked up for the sake of being locked up. For the matter of providing the ultimate safety for its citizens or staff, such places as the special management units are designed, staffed and operated in such a manner every tiny little element of the environment is controlled. Much more restricted than any other place inside a prison, one would tremble with pure fear is ever left alone inside one of these boxes of concrete and steel designed to drive someone crazy through the use of the SID methods readily available to anyone who chooses to use them.

None of the pods are soundproof thus every whimper, every cry and every shout can be heard by all those that live inside. Every sound triggers a response from someone down the tier and whether friend or foe, the result is a mixture of shouts and chants that compete to be heard by its intended receiver. The officers, charged with the duty to maintain order, ignore these chants as they conduct their walks and exit the pods as quickly as they entered thus unable to distinguish a cry for help from a cry of disgust. None, even the best of the best, choose to remain inside one of these boxes any longer than they have to because of the steady pandemonium that exists within cell to cell and inmate to inmate.

The heat in the summer is unbearable as the swamp coolers are insufficient and barely is the air flow is noticable or felt. The lack of direct sunlight creates a shadow on every wall and with no hope to see the sun unless fortunate enough to be allowed to exit the cell for the designated recreation time outside the cell but to another concrete box. Many have electricity but often, if the inmate is problematic in sorts, the breaker is turned off for a designated amount of time undocumented anywhere. The water is controlled and can be turned off anytime staff chose to do so as well as adjusting the timers on the showers to shorten their use of water. The grey walls are scratched with graffiti and the front of the cell where the food port is situated is filthy with residue of spoiled food or in some cases, fecal material smeared by someone to get the attention needed to have someone talk to them.

The staff, all wearing protective gloves and in some cases, shields to protect them from foreign objects hurled at them from both the top and the bottom of the tiers work hard just to keep up with the most elementary chores to keep it going. Day in and day out, working short handed and against time to complete their required duties, the attitude that prevails is "us versus them" as many inmates choose to duel or engage in combat with the officers just to prove to others he is not a "bitch" for someone.

The presence of SID is abundant and it impacts the quality of life for the inmates to the extent of creating a deep abyss of hopelessness and an alien form of prison reality. Filthy, brutal, ignored and often perceived to be a form of "torture" for many, these inmates are kept away from the eyes of the public and anyone requesting to visit these dungeons. Whenever a legislator, the attorney general, a lawyer or foreign consulate comes to visit the place sufficient warning is given to "clean the place up" and design the approved route for the tour or visit.

Never seen in its real condition, not even by the agency director, it is repugnant that such a place exists in the first place. Toilets that are back up are left that way for weeks forcing some to crap on the floor. Lights stay on day and night and are eventually covered with paper to give them darkness to sleep in. Difficulties in sleeping at night as the screaming never ends, many choose to sleep during the day. The problem with covering up the lights during the night is it makes it impossible for the officer to see inside the cell without a flashlight and when maximum custody inmates are double bunked, there are dangers that an assault might have taken place but the officer's view is obstructed by the darkness and the willingness to have the inmate remove the cover is reluctantly and rarely done as it interrupts their hasty exit out of the box.

Mentally ill inmates are especially susceptible to the SID treatment. In fact, it is fair to say that because of their individual disorders, many suffer needlessly from sanctions imposed by those who may be unaware of their disabilities or dysfunctional capacities. This is the main reason mentally ill inmates should not be housed with behavioral problematic inmates. This influences administrative decisions when it should rather be a mental health decision to make with those parameters that are clinically sound and treatment effective. These inmates, often responding without malice, are given disciplinary for such conduct as covering their lights as they copy what others do or say while not understanding what they did wrong to get the punishment.

Many support staff, contract, medical and maintenance personnel refuse to enter cell areas because of the potential dangers in dealing with the mentally ill. This is largely due to misunderstandings of managing a mentally ill inmate and lack of training of such behaviors and because the cellie next door may be a sociopath and destructive or assaultive in nature. As a result, the response time to a work order or a medical need is sufficiently delayed. Sometimes it is due to fear but other times it is impose a behavioral modification that if you are going to bother them, they will come and see you on their time and not theirs.

The same applies to delayed letter deliveries, torn books, food thrown on the floor as a message that the inmate "needs to clean up his act" and other SID methods of satisfying the boundaries of control and who is actually in control of the box. There are cases where those inmates who have thrown their food tray back at the officer were provided sack meals for years to avoid the clean up of such waste on the cement floors. Never getting a hot meal or balanced diet, they live like that forever until someone questions why this inmate is not getting a regular meal.

Often called administrative segregation or lockup by many, the road to such a place is well designed and intentionally vague. Any inmate, whether serving life or serving two years of time can be directed to follow the course to solitary confinement through careful design of a set of management tools that can effectively erase someone's existence off the face of this earth for years. This toolbox of lockup tools consists of instruments that have for decades facilitated the route to lockup in a most legitimate manner but with the wrong spirit or design for use of such places. Let us examine these tools up close and decide whether or not they are legitimately or appropriately used to serve the purpose of administrative segregation for those who need such management controls.

Designated SID inmates are the focus of management efforts to remove them from the open yards or general population and cast them out of sight and out of mind through various means.

Tools designed to accommodate such a purpose are:

1. misconduct reports
2. Alleged threats to security or security staff
3. Alleged threat of harming themselves
4. Suicide ideations or expression of such
5. Attempted suicide
5. Assaultive behaviors
6. Gang activity or validation
7. Possession of weapons
8. Predatory conduct or behaviors.

Paying attention to these tools in the hands of a sound and ethical practicing corrections administrator creates no harm in the process. However, this would be the exception to the rule as each and every one of these tools provided, allows an administrator to remove an inmate to the most restrictive custody level without absolute proof of such conduct or behavior as it may only be inferred, speculated, documented as a possibility or with thin evidence that these tools can and do provide the catalyst to clear the administrator of any legal burdens for moving a inmate to a higher custody level without just cause. Even an inmate who repetitively writes grievances can end up in max custody.

Sometimes, when a high ranking administrator wants to issue retribution or retaliation to a SID designated inmate for doing something negative on their "domain" they will enter a comment into the computerized management system that will override any custody score or any other trigger than would have allowed that person to be reduced when eligible to do so upon review.

Thus an abuse of such a administrative '˜flag" could result in an extended stay in the higher custody level until such time the inmate is considered "taught a lesson" and reviewed for consideration to be lowered. Herein lays the biggest problem as mentally ill inmates are included in these behavioral difficult inmates as no distinction is being made at the time of placement. Nobody speaks up and nobody challenges the move and when the inmate grieves the process, the system has already been updated to show just cause for the placement or that the person is a systems abuser. The tricks of the trade allows that to be done since anyone can enter into the computerized management file and insert whatever critical comment needs to be made to justify the need. This is regardless whether disciplinary was upheld or not. It has no bearing.

Once the inmate is housed inside a maximum custody unit he or she is subject to a review and medical / mental health assessment. These screens are pencil whipped by many [not all] and reveal only two things for sure. Cooperative or uncooperative attitudes towards those who interviewed them which rarely results in any productive dialogue. There is no value in these screening processes as the inmate rarely talks about anything in fear of being targeted for more retribution or retaliation by staff through the administration. The routine inside is both mundane and often out of compliance with mandated living conditions.

The frequency and the amount of time allotted for each inmate to have recreation and showers are often curtailed or in many cases skipped due to lack of staffing to facilitate such a task. This builds animosity between staff and inmates and often results in frequent force being used during those periods where the inmate is escorted out of his or her cell to go to the recreation pen.

Visitation is only as good as the inmate's ability to recognize what day of the week it is and the ability to schedule such an activity with the case manager or visitation officer. Mentally ill inmates do not participate as they are either drugged through chemical restraints or unaware of their visitation privileges or they show no interest in seeing family as solitary confinement breeds hopelessness and depression. Calls are good for those functional but not a means to talk to family by the mentally ill. Competing with behavioral inmates for the telephone means somebody has to lose his or her turn and therefore gives up the opportunity to call home. Personal property is limited especially if designed a suicide problem or behavioral troublemaker. Kick starters are those who ramp up others into creating chaos inside the concrete boxes and as a result, the entire day is spent on lockdown status with no showers and recreation.

Mentally ill inmates are often intimidated, manipulated or otherwise convinced to hand over their personal property e.g. television, walkman, or anything else that can serve someone else in an entertainment mode or item for barter with others as officers rarely search the cells for contraband and items switched, traded or stolen. One can only imagine that mentally ill inmates are often stripped of anything worth value by those who do it because they can.

A review of suicides, self mutilations and other bizarre conduct within these isolated grey walls are horrendously revealing of a bigger problem. Being forced to live in isolation for years at a time creates intense feelings that can break a person's will to live or maintain a level of remaining rational under so much distress. It is not unusual for behavioral inmates to cut themselves just to get the attention from staff so they can socialize for just a few minutes with the nurse or staff member. Unfortunately, for the mentally ill, this could result in death as they have no idea where the boundaries are when they self harm themselves and may incur a more severe or serious wound that could be fatal due to emotional and mental deterioration inside this box.

SID can be used by staff, employees or even other inmates. This method of controlling behaviors inside a maximum custody unit have been effective for years and is often not questioned and rather, approved through tacit approval of those who choose to look the other way or not make changes in the routine of the unit affected. SID is destructive and responsible for homicides, suicides, serious assaults on both staff and inmates and is rarely identified as the cause or catalyst for such disruptive conduct. The inmate has to tow the line and accept responsibility for all he or she does without any reprieve or relief through grievances that are totally ignored or processed unless the right person gets a hold of such a document. Staff is rarely punished for excessive force or unprofessional conduct unless such conduct was viewed on a surveillance camera, a taped recording of the incident or word of mouth by other participants who are willing to speak out loud and tell the truth. Such conduct is considered to be a blatant violation of the code of silence and offers repercussions that could result in future disciplinary by designation (ironically the same method used to elevate the inmate's existence into max custody through paperwork) , banished or removed from the work setting, passed over for promotions. It can be accurately said that for both staff and inmate, only the strong survive.

The early warning signs for SID inmates are normally well structured and very transparent if someone is looking for them. The reason they are so transparent is because nobody has ever bothered to conduct an audit of these placements in maximum custody thus giving the administration free will and room to maneuver. If assigned to a human rights fact finding team it would be most expeditious for any member to pull out their records on all maximum custody inmates and glean their housing record, their mental health, medical scores, their disciplinary for frequency, severity and locations and most of all their use of force records, activity pod sheets showing participation in those mandated living conditions considered constitutional issues and comments by staff.

The disciplinary report, frequent and stacked by offenses indicates the severity of consideration provided. The signature of a lieutenant and above indicates ownership in the problem and the review by the deputy warden or designees shows the will to get rid of this SID inmate. A finding for a positive drug test when there are no other indicators of previous drug use may be a clue but not for certain. The finding of a shank or prison made knife can be planted and accomplish the goal to get rid of the SID inmate. Then when the inmate gets to the destination you must see if the person picks up more reports and gleans whether they were written by one person all the time or multiple persons including medical staff and administrative staff. This is important as it may indicate a targeted effort to keep this inmate at this most restrictive level. Statements supporting bizarre or unusual behavior can often support the placement into a temporary security watch or suicide watch depending on the space availability inside the max custody unit.

Follow up indicators should reveal the existence of a long term threat as the short term threat has now been assessed as needing more time in max custody. Max custody overrides are common tools to keep a SID inmate in max custody. Scoring lower levels but being overridden to remain in isolation and in a high secure setting is a powerful tool to break the spirit. One should read their classification forms and see what rationale was given to keep them in max custody. The filing of grievances is a poor indicator of staff abuse or harassment as it is taught in "max custody 101" to file a grievance whenever you arrive. The key to such instruments are the topics of concerns e.g. medical care, food, property and staff harassment and then follow the trail to names, frequency and history of prior institutional placements to see if the problem was pre-existing.

The most obvious means for family to be concerned with is the sudden interruption of regular phone calls or letter since both are controlled by the staff or administrations. Any inquiries by family members may prompt further SID treatment and create additional stress between the administration and the inmate. This elevation to a "high profile" inmate is not a popular event inside the box as it draws more heat on the living area with more cops being present to interrupt the inmate's games and schemes. This SID inmate will soon have to be moved due to threats made on his safety by other inmates. Attempted suicides when there is no history of previous suicides is a cry for a "come look at me please' for I have problems. It could also be an indicator they have reached the end of their ability to manage their behaviors where they are assigned and asking for a "room change" not otherwise considered. Excessive uses of forces are indicators of agitation and confrontation by staff who like to abuse their authority on others. SID inmates are often exposed to such an individual and are regularly abused by being played one against the other being blamed for things that happen inside the box when in fact, the officer created the problem.

Thankfully, there are only a few staff members that engage in such abusive practices of "kick starting" a SID inmate but as others may look the other way, the abuse continues. This blind eye is driving those who are mentally ill beyond the parameters of coping with their lives. It is with deep regret that I feel so compelled to write such a document when in fact, there are many great and dedicated staff that work inside these units who perform with diligence and energy unmatched by many who chose to be a correctional officer or administrator.

The truth, revealed only shows our weaknesses in management prisons designed for solitary confinement, isolation from the world and other human beings and deprivation of those basic rights to live under the most reasonable correctional practices allowed by law and policies. Human rights are valuable possessions no matter where they are located and should be respected as the rules are clear and compliance is an expectation. Unless the culture inside these prisons change, there will always be abused inmates and abusive staff.

Mental health inmates have no business being housed in isolation or solitary confinement as it only adds harm to the condition(s). The personality disorders, the psychopathic killers, the death row maniacs and the incorrigible gangsters who have no regard for human life or decency should be locked down per correctional best practices. The rules for mentally ill inmates must be different. Their disabilities and disorders, legitimately covered under the American Disabilities Act must be preserved and paid attention to by all who are responsible for the operation of such units. The rules are vague and it's easier "to do as I say rather than what is written." The oversight is nonexistent and the care or interest in such a place is apathetic and lackadaisical to say the least.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

My husband is currently housed at this unit-Browning (SMUII) and I can say with 100% certainty that it is much worse there than even this writing states. I do however appreciate what was written. It was brave to speak the truth in a public forum. So many have no ability to care about some of these issues as they feel all "convicts" deserve to be treated in this manne. It's very sad.