As noted in the last post, a prisoner at ASPC-Perryville killed herself last week. Below is the notice of 35 year-old Susan Lopez' death from the AZ Department of Corrections. What follows is what some of the other prisoners had to say about her suicide. If you are a loved one of Susan's, please brace yourself. I'm sorry if this post is painful, but the public needs to know what's happening behind bars in this state, or more vulnerable people will die needlessly.
Susan was a mother of four children, and was apparently a Certified Nurses' Aide. By the number of people landing on my site Googling her this week, I'd say she was probably well-loved by people in her community, even though she was ignored by her caretakers in prison, where she was sent for non-violent crimes. Her history suggests that her criminal activity may have been related to the disease of addiction. Most addicts in America never acquire a record for it; many get medical treatment for their illness or join a 12-step program and give a tremendous amount back to their communities. The ones who get criminalized before they get well are less fortunate, not less worthy of recovery, and their lives are often shredded by the excess branding, shaming, exiling, and impoverishment that results from initiating criminal prosecution. It can be completely devastating.
A few extraordinary souls pick themselves up after prison and make good anyway - we like to use them as proof that incarceration itself can "help" people get back on their feet. They are the exception to the rule, however, and it's what they already have within them - not some magic instilled by going to prison itself - that gets them through hell and back in one piece, if they make it. Once caught up in the machinery of "justice", though, too many just never break free. The criminal justice system is designed to extort us and exploit our troubles, not assist us, if we're in the shoes of the accused - guilty or not. Once law enforcement is on the scene we have no control over how it plays out from there; cops have been known to kill people who are suicidal, and courts here routinely hold mentally incompetent defendants criminally culpable for the symptoms of their mental illness.
There are no easy answers for addiction, of course; the ones out there are really as diverse as the population of addicts. I've seen courts be far too quick to take a one-size-fits-all approach and send people off to prison because AA didn't fit them and they screwed up their probation or couldn't pay off their restitution in time. A lot of folks think that the state is actually benevolent and calling the police on a loved one who's addicted might help speed along their recovery process by raising the bottom they have to hit before committing themselves to breaking the cycle, but that's especially misguided because of what I just described. I would only resort to such drastic action today if it was the only way to protect someone's life or limb in a crisis.
Most addicts who land in prison are admittedly there for crimes supporting their habits, too, like theft or fraud. That doesn't make them dangerous, though, or justify the violence of imposing imprisonment on them at outrageous public expense - especially while simultaneously refusing to cover treatment services for them to get well. Once you're a criminal, however, every relapse - which is "part of recovery" for the rest of us - is a potential parole violation or a new charge as a "repeat offender", and as your record gets longer judges get less sympathetic...
All of which appears to have happened to Susan.
Susan's guilty plea is on the internet; the sentencing minutes should be updated and posted soon. Her Graham County sentence is what's in question; that's the one that hasn't been posted as of yet. You can check current court records by searching her name with her month and year of birth (June 1975). She had a whole lot of petty stuff pile up on her in several different counties at once - apparently accumulating over several years then catching up to her once she was in custody.
I think if all her charges were in one county, she would have had more dismissed in a plea agreement; the poor woman was just pounded by court appearances this winter. By the looks of it, the respective county attorneys filed every single charge they possibly could to intimidate her into the deals she entered: she could have been facing the rest of her life in prison for forgery-related crimes if she lost at trial. They really do hurt people who resist them: I know one fellow doing 52 years for fraudulent schemes (largely because he accused the prosecution and judiciary of racism then lost in court).
I find it astounding that the judges who sent this mother off to prison were prepared to expend anywhere from $60,000 to over $120,000 in public funds just to punish her - that's what really seems criminal. Our legislature is equally as complicit. It's unbelievable that given such an investment no one could even bother to sit down to help Susan figure out how long she would be locked up and away from her family. There are sources of possible confusion evident in Susan's posted ADC records - her death notice lists her as being 40 though she was born in 1975, and her obituary indicates a different middle name than her court and ADC records. All the court documents indicate it's the same Susan, though. How hard could it have been to help her sort this out and cope with it? A little bit of attention could have saved her life.
Unfortunately, the nightmare that unfolded for Susan immediately prior to her suicide seems to be the standard MO at the Arizona Department of Corrections, though I've had some good experiences with at least one CO at ASPC-Tucson, and I know there are other exceptions - like former ASPC-Eyman DW Carl Toersbijns. It's not the individual CO's so much anyway - it's the staffing schedules, inadequate training, and an abusive institutional culture that results in deaths like Marcia Powell's, Brenda Todd's, and Susan's. There isn't the expectation that officers respond with compassion to prisoners, of course - they're all just criminals trying to manipulate them because that's what they do best.
If ADC policies and culture reflected a fundamental value for human rights, there would be less abusive and negligent conduct by employees. The leadership makes their disdain for their prisoners clear to all, however, and throws criminals on the legislature's alter for live sacrifices to offer their constituents without thought for the consequences of new fees and restrictions for prisoners and their families - who are also taxpaying constituents, I might add. The description of the main officer who ignored Susan's pleas for help is consistent with what I would expect from the current ADC, sadly.
At most the officer(s) involved might get written up - unless this becomes a politically charged case, and the ADC decides to sacrifice the officer to minimize the appearance of institutional negligence, as was alleged by CO's over the death of Marcia Powell. The pattern and practice of ignoring women begging for help in AZ state prisons is unlikely to change any time soon, then - not without serious litigation, anyway. The state is far more concerned with avoiding liability than it is with taking responsibility, despite the moralistic garbage it shoves down prisoners' throats about why they must be brutalized the rest of their lives for the smallest of crimes.
To Susan's family, on that note: take your time grieving, but file a notice of claim against the state within six months for each survivor, or you'll be precluded from suing in state court in the future. The ADC needs to be held responsible for their neglect; so many women out there are still suffering, and have no other hope for relief. I'll do what I can to put survivors in touch with attorneys who can help file claims for wrongful deaths - there are far too many happening like this. I'll also do what I can to help you compile evidence; that's what I've been doing in these blogs for nearly two years now.
My number is 480-580-6807; my email is firstname.lastname@example.org; my name is Peggy. My office is at 1009 N. 1st St. #8, Phoenix, next to the Firehouse Gallery. Contact me anytime.
Anyone can contact the US Department of Justice to complain about all the prison suicides under Brewer, by the way. Ask for a CRIPA Investigation into the AZ Department of Corrections.
Jonathan Smith, Chief
US DOJ Civil Rights Division,
Special Litigation Section
950 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, PHB
Washington, DC 20530
1601 W. JEFFERSON
PHOENIX, ARIZONA 85007
JANICE K. BREWER, GOVERNOR CHARLES L. RYAN, DIRECTOR
For Immediate Release
For more information contact:
March 28, 2011 Inmate Death Notification
Phoenix, Az. – Inmate Susan Lopez, 40, ADC #184221, died Friday night from an apparent suicide.
Lopez, sentenced out of Cochise and Graham County, was serving 6 years for forgery. She came to ADC Dec. 2, 2010 and was held at the Santa Cruz Unit, ASPC-Perryville.
The death is under investigation by the department.
"Perryville - 16 yard: Inmate 184221 LOPEZ Susan died last night by hanging. Was told she was a low risk inmate who was put in 16 yard after returning from going to court.
She had just been brought back to from court where she was sentenced to 3 years concurrent on a charge but the counselor told her the computer said she got 6 years-consecutive. She begged for help and was ignored. Her counselor did nothing to try to get that corrected and would not allow her to talk to anyone about it.
She had been seeking help for several days and begged for help. The counselor did nothing. She asked for help from other officers.
Her husband called to say their daughter was having surgery in the hospital - a family emergency. She tried to get the counselor to let her call home on this emergency. He would not help her."