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, January 31, 2012

UNSHACKLE US! SB 1184: Rights for pregnant prisoners.

----------Legislative ALERT From the ACLU of Arizona------------

Every woman deserves safe and humane conditions in which to deliver her child.
And every child deserves safe delivery conditions that don’t risk his or her entry into this world.

But pregnant inmates—and their children—don’t always get those conditions. Pregnant inmates are sometimes shackled at the wrists and/or ankles while they give birth.  This practice is extremely dangerous to both mother and baby and can cause major problems during delivery. This practice is almost always unnecessary. This practice has been opposed by the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Correctional Association, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Marshals Service. This practice has already been banned by a handful of other states.

Tomorrow morning at 9 AM, an Arizona Senate health committee will try to do something about the practice of shackling pregnant inmates. SB 1184 (prohibited restraints; pregnant prisoners) prohibits the use of restraints on pregnant inmates while they are being transported to a medical facility to deliver their baby, during labor and delivery, and during postpartum recovery. The bill is sensible and reasonable, and even includes a safety exception to allow for the limited use of restraints if it is absolutely necessary for the safety of medical and corrections personnel. The bill also has significant bipartisan support. Most importantly, SB 1184 goes a long way to ensuring safe conditions for mother and baby in a population that is all too often overlooked.

Tell Arizona’s legislators that you support the safety and well-being of all children and their mothers. Tell Arizona’s legislators that they can do the same by voting “YES” on SB 1184. There are two ways to do so.

If you have an account with the Legislature's request-to-speak system, log in and register your support. You can reach the log-in page by following this link:

Contact the members of the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee and ask them to vote “YES” on SB 1184. Here is the contact information for members of the committee:

Linda Gray (**committee chair and sponsor of the bill**)—email:; phone: 602-926-3376
Adam Driggs (vice-chair)—email:; phone: 602-926-3016
Nancy Barto—email:; phone: 602-926-5766
Rich Crandall—email:; phone: 602-926-3020
Leah Landrum Taylor—email:; phone: 602-926-3830
Linda Lopez—email:; phone: 602-926-4089

In liberty,

Anjali Abraham
Public Policy Director

ASPC-Florence Death in Custody: Karot Phothong, 37.

Condolences to this man's family. Please contact the ACLU of Arizona about your loved one's death; they are filing a class action suit against the state for medical and psychiatric neglect of prisoners. One big concern has been the doubling of the suicide rate under the current administration. Violence has skyrocketed as well. 

Feel free to contact me anytime if you wish to organize with other families who have had similar experiences with the Arizona Department of Corrections, or if you wish to share more of Karot's story. 

Finally, suicide can be a devastating thing to survive, whatever the circumstances surrounding it. You might want to check out Survivors of Suicide, Tucson  for support coping with your loss. For more information about them, contact the executive director, Tyler Woods at 520-861-663.

Take care,

Peggy Plews 
( / 480-580-6807).

Karot Phothong 

(602) 542-3133


For more information contact: Bill Lamoreaux

January 31, 2012

Inmate Death Notification

Florence, Az. – Inmate Karot Phothong, 37, ADC #98842, was found unresponsive in his housing unit Saturday. He was pronounced dead from a possible suicide after medical responders attempted life saving measures.

Phothong, sentenced out of Pima County, was serving 12 years for aggravated assault. He came to ADC Sept. 9, 2005 and was held at the Central Unit, ASPC-Florence.

The death is under investigation by the department.


Monday, January 30, 2012

AZ legs Ash & Gray support new limits to shackling pregnant prisoners.

It's about time. With two strong Republicans at the helm on this, we might actually see it pass the legislature this year. This shows, by the way, that some things done by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office actually can be reined in by proper legislative oversight - not everyone has to wring their hands and whine about being powerless in the face of the man abusing people. Thanks to Representative Cecil Ash and Senator Linda Gray for being willing to take this on.


Bill limits shackling of pregnant inmates

A bipartisan group of lawmakers hopes Arizona will join 14 other states in limiting how and when jails can shackle pregnant women.

Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to push legislation for the past two years. But this year, the effort may see some success. Republicans are sponsoring bills in both the House and Senate. And for the first time, the issue has been granted a hearing.

The Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee will hear Senate Bill 1184 Wednesday morning. Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, is both the committee’s chairwoman and the bill’s primary sponsor, giving it a strong chance of passing at least the committee.

Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, is sponsoring a similar House Bill 2528.

The Senate bill would ban any state or county correctional institution from using restraints on a prisoner or detainee in her final trimester of pregnancy or during labor, delivery and postpartum recovery unless medical staff request the restraints or a corrections officer determines that the situation “presents an extraordinary circumstance” such as being a substantial flight risk. It would ban leg or waist restraints in all circumstances during labor or delivery.

“This practice is not just dangerous to the mother but it’s also dangerous to the baby being born,” ACLU of Arizona Public Policy Director Anjali Abraham said. “If you’ve had a baby or been in the labor room with a woman, you know their biggest priority is having that baby. They are not going to jump off the bed and take off.”

The proposed legislation would most impact county jails. The Arizona Department of Corrections instituted restrictions on shackling women in labor or postpartum recovery in 2003. The Federal Bureau of Prisons restricted it in 2008.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has some concerns with the Senate bill, Deputy Chief Ray Churay said.

“We’re not super opposed to this,” Churay said. “There are just some adjustments we would ask for.”

He said some of the bill’s definitions are too vague. They’d like to see the bill require that a medical professional determine whether a woman is in labor, and they want Gray to clarify the definition of postpartum recovery so it does not ban law enforcement from shackling a woman who must remain in the hospital following her child’s birth for reasons unrelated to the delivery.

Churay said the county already does not routinely use leg or waist restraints on pregnant women. But he said the bill could impact a common practice of using a leg tether to lock the women to their hospital bed during postpartum recovery. He said the tether is long enough to allow a woman to walk to the bathroom and around the room.

“They are in a situation where security is very, very limited,” Churay said of inmates in the hospital. “We’ve never had a complaint about the leg tether from hospital staff or from an inmate. We have to take all precautions, and we believe the tether is necessary.”

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is facing a federal lawsuit over the shackling issue. Miriam Mendiola-Martinez filed a lawsuit in December alleging that county employees exhibited deliberate indifference to her medical needs and violated her constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment when she was shackled before and after her Caesarean section.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Criminal Damage and Deaths in Custody: Letter to my Sentencing Judge.

Resistance Alley, Phoenix, AZ
(June 4, 2011)
January 26, 2012

Honorable Gloria G. Ybarra
Phoenix Municipal Court
300 W. Washington St.
Phoenix, AZ 85003

Dear Judge Ybarra,

I sure hope you’re having a good day. This is kind of long.

I appeared in your court this morning prepared for trial, but the charge I contested was dropped so I ended up entering a plea unexpectedly. When you asked if I had anything to say before you entered your sentencing orders, I was kind of at a loss for words. I’m not very experienced at being prosecuted and don’t know what the proper procedure is, but since my thoughts have caught up with me now, in the still of the night, I hope it isn’t too late to enter them into my official court record. My crime was one of civil disobedience, so this action just isn’t finished until my statement for sentencing is in your hands. This is it.

I first began investigating and blogging about Arizona’s state prisons 2 ½ years ago when Marcia Powell died at Perryville Prison. Marcia was a 48 year-old mentally ill sex worker with a long history of drug and prostitution convictions and no family willing to claim her body once she was gone. She got 27 months for offering a cop a $20 blow job, doing much of it on the maximum security yard at Perryville. Marcia was supposed to be on a 10-minute suicide watch when she was left in an uncovered cage, largely ignored, for nearly four hours in the mid-day sun.  It was at least 107 degrees that day. By the time someone noticed her unconscious on the ground, Marcia had defecated on herself, her organs were overheated and failing, and she had second degree burns all over her body. She went into a coma and passed away that night after the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections removed her from life support. 

"Free Marcia Powell"
Remembering women who have died 
from suicide and the violence of neglect 
at Perryville state prison in Goodyear, AZ.
(November 18, 2011)

In the wake of Marcia’s death, 16 ADC employees were disciplined, 7 of whom were referred for criminal prosecution. No one ended up being charged, unfortunately; they all got their jobs back, in fact - except for the deputy warden, who was allowed to retire. Conflicting testimony was one reason no one was prosecuted - all the prisoners said the guards ignored Marcia’s pleas for water and relief from the sun; the guards had another story, of course. 10,000 pages of ADC investigative material, and the county attorney couldn’t make a single case out of it to hold anyone responsible - not even on a misdemeanor.

What happened to Marcia affected me deeply; there, but for the grace of God, went I.

I had been a teenage alcoholic and addict, and traded my sex a few times in my life to get high and get by. What I did as a teen to support my habit could have landed me in prison for 20 years - not rightfully so, mind you, but there nonetheless. I’m manic-depressive, as well - I’m just lucky I sobered up young, had good health insurance, and was never criminalized. The places I landed when I got into trouble all had heated bedrooms, not icy cold cells; we were traumatized and ill, not fundamentally bad; we were watched by psychiatric aides, not guards - and they didn’t lock us in cages to “wait us out” through the hours or days when we most wanted to die. I was blessed where Marcia wasn’t - I wasn’t that far from where she ended up though.

 E. Roosevelt St. Artwalk
(April 2, 2011)

Since then I’ve done extensive research on the violence and neglect in the Arizona Department of Corrections. When I discovered from an analysis of state records that the suicide and homicide rates doubled almost immediately under the current administration - which wasn’t interested in any dialogue about my research or conclusions - I began pushing the ACLU and the Department of Justice hard to intervene. For a long time, my appeals for help were met by silence or answered with form letters. The body count kept growing. I began to draw the names of the dead in murals on the sidewalks of justice - the legislature, courthouses, the police department and jail, and the ADC itself. I put down memorials in chalk all over town, then made postcards out of them and sent them across the country, calling media, lawmakers, activists - anyone I could think of for help. I even engaged the Phoenix police in my quest for assistance - quite often, in fact. None of the prisons I have issue with are in their jurisdiction, but I didn’t think that should stop them. They still could have helped open doors.

By last spring, when I finally painted the names of the dead across my alley, this was all deeply personal to me. Because I write about prison deaths, trying to humanize the prisoners as much as possible, I hear from their families a lot. Daily I’m exposed to the secondary trauma of working with survivors of prison violence;  I live with the mother of a prisoner who was murdered by the West Side Crips at ASPC-Lewis two summers ago. Her son, Dana Seawright, was caught by the gang in a relationship with a Mexican prisoner, and by refusing to hurt someone to prove his loyalty to his own race, he died from a double hate crime for being true to himself. So the names I lay down on the earth in my murals are more than just criminals: I have spoken with many of their parents, lovers, teachers, siblings and kids. I know too many of their stories. Each time I add a new name to my list, I am acutely aware that - whatever their crime - it is still someone’s father or son, mother or sister, loved one or friend - someone I will be hearing from soon. 

  "Please Send Help"
Phoenix Police Parking Lot
(October 1, 2011)

On May 10, a meeting was held of the Maricopa County Commission of Justice System Intervention for the Seriously Mentally Ill. My analysis of suicides and homicides in the state prisons as of that date revealed that not only had they doubled under the current administration, but that prisoners with serious mental illness were at particularly high risk of being victims of both. I went to the meeting to tell them this, first stopping outside to chalk a memorial for them. The meeting was being held at the Old County Courthouse on W. Washington St.

I should note here that I’ve been exercising my free speech rights all over the sidewalks of Phoenix for a little over 2 years now; it rinses right off with the occasional desert rain. It took the Phoenix Police and County Attorney’s Office awhile to decide that my chalk alone didn’t warrant arrest or prosecution for criminal damage; bank security guards around town took a little longer to catch on. So I wasn’t too surprised when - not long into my project that morning - a deputy came running out of the courthouse waving his radio in the air and yelling “you can’t do that here!” 

 Old County Courthouse, Phoenix.
(May 10, 2011)
Before I knew it, he took his foot and rubbed out the name of a young mentally impaired boy who had killed himself just a week after arriving in adult prison. Within minutes I was surrounded by deputies and daring them to take me to jail for trespassing, furious about what I considered to be desecration. Honestly, it was at that moment that I decided the next time I put that kid’s name down on the ground, no one was going to be able to smudge it out. The deputies backed down after the presiding judge for the day told them to leave me be. They washed all the names away as soon as I went inside.

And so, a week or two later, I began to paint my back alley - first with a memorial spanning about 20 feet. Then, inspired by the graffiti of resistance around me (we have enlightened vandals in our neighborhood),  I figured that if I was going to go to jail for criminal damage, I might as well do it right. I spent that next week decorating my alley and getting it ready for a small demo at June Artwalk, when I invited the Graffiti Detectives to arrest me. I even decked it out with anarchy symbols. I figured if I did enough damage I’d be charged with a felony, and could then take my case to Maricopa County’s Superior Court. There I planned to use my prosecution to confront the judiciary about packing all these people into prisons without taking any responsibility for assuring that there’s ample mechanisms for protecting their rights and lives behind bars. I wanted them to call for a judicial investigation into the homicides, suicides, and medical neglect in the state prisons. Seriously.

 "Resistance Alley: SOS"
Phoenix, AZ
(June 4, 2011)

I don’t know why I thought my plan might work, or why I was willing to risk felony charges and state custody to try to get the courts more involved; it was kind of extreme. I think it had something to do with finding out at the time that my mother’s brain cancer was terminal, and feeling powerless to fight it - one friend observed that I picked fights with as many cops as I could around then. My mom’s illness aside, though, I felt like I was rushing another gunshot victim to the ER, day after day, and instead of escorting me there or summoning an ambulance, every time the police stopped me they just chided me for property damage - I wasn‘t finding that very helpful, and often told them so. Anyway, I actually wrote to the Superior Court - and chalked their walk a few times - and I don’t think they’re doing a thing.

I clearly wasn’t thinking things out too well when I planned to turn to criminal mischief in order to enlist their assistance - I was kind of manic last spring from not sleeping enough after Mom got sick. By mid-May I wasn’t all that organized or realistic about my strategies for instigating social change. I was just simmering with rage at the Department of Corrections, arguably the most heavily-fortified institution in Arizona, and easily the most well-funded. Director Chuck Ryan has a billion dollars at his disposal to fight me with - not to mention all the courts, cops, guns, laws and lawmakers in the state on his side - and I was out of ideas for soliciting help. I was utterly powerless to do anything myself, yet felt completely responsible for each new life lost that didn‘t have to be. For the death rates from suicide and homicide alone to normalize again, at  least one in every two would have to be prevented. Among many in the mental health field, suicide is 100% preventable - that, at least, should be our goal.

Artwalk, Phoenix
(June 4, 2011)

I didn’t really care at the time about the possible consequences to my life of committing a felony or two; I also didn’t think my neighbors would mind much what I was doing. When I wasn’t grieving, I was just plain mad. “The City” could go to hell as far as I was concerned. The potential that my outdoor décor would cause anyone harm - beyond, perhaps, a little consternation - seemed pretty minimal next to the crimes of the evil empire I was deploying my artistry against. It still does, I have to say…though I guess that sounds a lot like I’m simply minimizing and justifying my own criminal conduct. That much I stand guilty of as well, then. 

This may not be the wisest thing for me to say, since I still have to answer to you on this matter, but I’d still paint the town tomorrow if the circumstances seemed to call for it. I am, for the most part, an anarchist at heart, and want to see the art of resistance flourish all over the place. Phoenix is feeding a good number of people to the prisons and jails every day, and nothing about how the city has responded to this crisis has changed since I started. Not that I plan to repeat this action - I just don’t want to end up in Chuck’s custody myself. That would make what I do a whole lot harder.

Anyway, following my Artwalk demonstration, the Graffiti Detectives tried to accommodate my desire to get into Superior Court by folding all my charges into a single felony. I really appreciated that at the time, and told them as much. I think Bill Montgomery either didn’t want to be part of my theater, though, or he just knew I was a little compromised by certain stressors (I was actually sending him postcards of my graffiti trying to provoke him into prosecuting me sooner rather than later…). Or maybe I’m giving him too much credit for caring one way or the other, and his people just thought I’d be a nuisance to deal with so they dumped me on your court instead. I’ve picked on him and his prosecutors in my blogs before, though - I would have thought they’d love to get their hands on me. That speaks well of their professionalism, I suppose.

Anarchy: No Justice/ No Peace
Resistance Alley Artwalk
just to be provocative
 (June 4, 2011)

In any case, I’m grateful not to be facing prison for even a day or the brand of “felon” for the rest of my life. Sgt. Kaddatz and Detective Rowe could have actually lodged more complaints against me than they did because I vandalized my alley again later that month, impatient for them to file the first set of charges so I could take my fight to court. I’ve chilled out since then, by the way. I still chalk sidewalks - I just stay away from painting them. The Graffiti Detectives showed a lot of restraint, I thought - especially considering how hard a time I gave them when they didn’t arrest me. I didn’t think my intersecting privileges should exempt me from what any young Latino male might go through in my shoes, so I got a little provocative and baited them a few times. I’m kind of grateful to be a well-educated middle-class white woman today, though, because if I was anyone else I would have probably been tasered or shot by now.

 "Prisoners Dying: SOS"
The Phoenix Center
(April 23, 2011)

I’ve come down a lot since then, of course - otherwise you would have been seeing me in court in pink socks and stripes. I got really depressed after my Mom died this summer, and my financial situation deteriorated so my energy has gone increasingly into basic survival. My court proceedings this fall and winter have been tedious and anti-climactic, to say the least - I haven’t had the kind of manic drive to orchestrate what I initially envisioned I‘d be doing with all this. One of the problems with my bi-polar disorder is that the fallout from my grandiosity and expansiveness usually catches up to me just as I’m crashing the hardest and am the least able to explain myself - I get way in over my head, and can‘t account for how I got there. I actually haven’t had much to say of late, believe it or not.

 "Demolish the Prisons"
ACLU-AZ, Phoenix
(April 26, 2011)

Since my protest in June, the ACLU and the Prison Law Office have at least decided to file suit against the AZ Department of Corrections over the medical and psychiatric neglect of their prisoners, the abuse of solitary confinement, and the skyrocketing suicide rates under Chuck Ryan. I think my research and imprisoned correspondents were more influential in helping them take that step than all my protests and postcards were - but the fact that there’s an emerging and impassioned prisoner rights movement here must have helped convince them that Arizona isn’t a lost cause. That’s part of what I do with my blogs: I bear witness, and try to make this struggle - and the people we’ve relegated to the darkness - more visible. 

 MLK Day Memorial
Margaret T. Hance Park, Phoenix
(January 16, 2011)

Both before and after my June Artwalk action, I tried to get the Phoenix Police to prompt my guy at the DOJ more about investigating the prison homicides, to no avail. The Capitol Police aren’t any help, either. I have to hand off  the high assault and homicide rates to someone before I can let myself retire from all this, and I just don’t know yet if the DOJ is going to agree to CRIPA Arizona over the rampant prison violence. The state prosecutor association’s recent attempt to blame it all on an inherently more violent inmate population is a distortion of data, at best - it’s more propaganda crafted to justify locking increasing numbers of people away. ADC statistics actually show a decrease, not an increase, in the number of violent offenders committed to their custody in the past two years.

I’m afraid the problem behind the escalating violence in Arizona’s prisons lies in the institutional culture that‘s been cultivated there, and how the ADC does business these days - not in who their customers are. Their policies and programs (or lack thereof), and their fees and penalties all reflect more than indifference - there’s a deep and pervasive contempt for prisoners and their families under this regime. Chuck Ryan himself is a bully, encouraging subordinates to behave the same way towards their staff and prisoners alike. He actually had a mentally ill Supermax prisoner prosecuted for arson who tried to kill himself by setting himself on fire after begging for a year to get out of solitary. The court added a year and a half onto his existing 10-year sentence, and even ordered that the guy pay the state restitution for his medical care in the amount of $1.8 million. He was prosecuted while chained to a bed and recovering from burns over 80% of his body.

  Who will represent the dead?
Arizona State Legislature, Phoenix
 (February 22, 2011)

Anyway, I still have some work to do on the prisons, but will refrain from engaging in acts of civil disobedience that may have a negative impact on my neighbors or community. As for the taxpayer dollars involved in policing and prosecuting me - really, I think the money would have been much better spent by the city getting someone to investigate the state prisons like I asked them to in the first place. The Phoenix Police could have at least contacted DPS or the DOJ to express their concern about the homeless mentally ill people they’re helping send off to prison - where they’re being assaulted, castrated and killed - so it’s not just my voice falling on deaf ears about all this (there are a lot of us clamoring out here these days, actually). A phone call requesting that the proper law enforcement agency conduct an investigation is all I’ve asked them to make. Instead, today there’s a few more lawsuits against the ADC, a few more names for my murals, and a few more families grieving their dead than there were when I demonstrated in June.  I’m just a civilian needing law enforcement assistance or the persuasive power of an informed judiciary - why is that so hard to get here?

I’m not too happy with either the courts or the cops in this state, frankly. A whole squad of detectives turned out to protect the pavement and dumpsters from my paintbrush at Artwalk in June, yet none of them will try to help me stop this death toll from climbing. If I presented evidence identifying suspects in an unsolved homicide in Buckeye or Tucson proper - or non-law enforcement corruption at the state level - they would have facilitated interagency communication about it without hesitation. Prisoners draw silence and blank stares, though. A well-placed phone call six months ago could have saved lives - still can, really. Here we are, though, half a year later, and instead of nailing the folks with the guns and badges and power who are doing real criminal damage to people‘s lives, the city is still prosecuting me and ignoring the evidence that I‘ve compiled against far more guilty parties. 

What is wrong with this place?

"Criminal Damage"
Resistance Alley, Phoenix
(June 10, 2011)

The answer to that, I think, has to do with the fundamental disregard we have for human life in Arizona - except to the extent to which a living, breathing being means somebody’s profit. That’s a bigger issue, of course, requiring an organic solution like revolution. There’s nothing the DOJ or ACLU combined can do about a terrified, self-interested, ignorant electorate like ours. Look at how our laws reinforce dehumanization of certain populations, too - it’s pervasive. It’s “criminal damage” to impede access to water for livestock in Arizona, and yet you can be prosecuted for littering if you try to assure access to water in the desert for human beings…specifically, for migrants.  Brown-skinned ones. That’s pretty twisted.

So is the state constitution. We need to amend the Victim’s Bill of Rights to include prisoners in the definition of “victim,” or we’ll never get justice for victims of police and prison violence, neglect and abuse. Persons “in custody for an offense” are exquisitely vulnerable to trauma and victimization, and will continue to be so as long as we diminish their rights that way. They and their survivors (in cases resulting in death) are the only class of people excluded from the rights afforded all other crime victims. That’s only because the perpetrators in those cases are most likely cops, not because one becomes suddenly less deserving of life or safety once taken into state custody. I can’t believe that most Arizonans - if they knew about Shannon Palmer, Tony Lester, Marcia Powell, Brenda Todd, Susan Lopez, Duron Cunningham, and Dana Seawright, to name a few - would continue to deny prisoners and their loved ones the same rights they would preserve for themselves and their children. Maybe that’s the next place I’ll go with my murals - a public education campaign of a slightly different kind.

Well, I guess that’s my statement, for better or worse - the one I would have read at sentencing if I saw it coming today. Sorry it’s so long. I hope it’s not too late to enter it into my court record. It’s also going up on my blogs. It’s just intended to be explanatory, not to excuse me in any way. I was ready to take full responsibility for everything I did - I really was prepared to go to prison if I needed to, in order to advance my cause. Thank God (and the County Attorney‘s Office, of course) that I didn’t.

In any case, I didn’t mean to wait until after you sentenced me to articulate why I did what I did, and what I am and am not remorseful for (yes, my neighbor's wall, no, the alley and dumpster - I made great improvements to the scene). Maybe that’s not very fair of me; I think you’re supposed to get the last word in. Hopefully it wouldn‘t have made you any less inclined to cut me loose with only restitution and community service. You can always take it out of me the next time, though - I’ll be back again with the Occupiers soon. I was arrested filming the police at their Hance Park protest this fall…

 Abolish the Phoenix Camping Ordinance!
Margaret T. Hance Park, Phoenix
(October 15, 2011)

I guess there’s one more thing I need to say, actually - whether or not it gets me into trouble. Please try not to send any more mentally ill people like me and my brother to Joe’s jail. He’s killing us in there, too, you know - some violently, like Marty Atencio, and some quietly - like those who cycle in and out of there for years dying inside, unnoticed. We aren’t “safer” or getting “cared for” in there as opposed to being on the streets, for the most part. Rather, behind bars we are in constant danger of violence, trauma and despair.

I don’t know why there isn’t anything the judiciary can do about guys like Arpaio and Ryan, since you entrust us so confidently to their custody. Once you get our fingerprint and designate us as property of the state, it seems you’re pretty much done with us, too. Surely if you can order cops into our private homes to enforce drug laws, you can send them into our public jails and prisons to enforce important laws that protect vulnerable persons from neglect and abuse, and promote the civil rights of all. It would seem to be your legal duty, in fact, to make sure that the places you lock us away in for our punishment - or our protection - aren’t routinely violating our rights to health, safety, sanity, and life, and that when you do learn of such things, you have them investigated further, or you dig into it yourself. We deserve to be treated with some humanity, whatever our crime.

Sadly, I heard a Municipal Court judge this week say she couldn‘t order or otherwise compel the jail to give a mentally ill prisoner his meds, even though his attorney said he was decompensating rapidly without them. That’s deeply troubling. She can’t convince or coerce the jail to give him essential medical care, but she’s empowered to imprison him for the next nine months on a Rule 11 getting restored to the level of competency that the MCSO destroyed. He would be punished if he was non-compliant with treatment in there, but the jail staff get off hurting him scott free. That’s stealing a piece of a man’s life from him because he’s ill, not because he’s a criminal. He hadn’t even been sentenced. How does that resemble justice? If that judge can’t have a clerk call Magellan or Correctional Health Services and get that guy his injection before he gets sicker, then she should at least have ordered someone to make a civil rights complaint on his behalf - not just leave him to unravel in jail between hearings like that. That’s real criminal damage.

"The Trial of Officer Kevin Gerster"
Maricopa County Central Courthouse, Phoenix
(March 11, 2011)

Having one’s “hands tied” by the politics of dealing with an incompetent but popular elected sheriff - or the governor’s appointed chief disciplinarian, for that matter - doesn’t keep them free of the blood of prisoners when one knows specifically who is suffering, how, where, and what could be done to alleviate it. Even I accept that responsibility when a plea for help arrives in my post office box, and I have no power to exert but that which I create myself - in fact, I‘m just another convicted criminal now. I’m not the one putting all these people in jail and prison, either. I think the feigned helplessness of people who could intervene meaningfully if they tried is an excuse for laziness or cowardice. It also explains why we have to beg the feds to investigate every law enforcement agency, detention center, and penal institution in this state in the first place - our own people won't do the job when it's clearly called for.

So, that’s basically what my crime - this particular crime of expression, anyway - was all about. While I take responsibility for making amends where I offended and restitution where I harmed, I don’t think I’m the one who needs to be rehabilitated here. Please share my concerns with your colleagues and ask them to be more pro-active in the future when it comes to the well-being of the vulnerable people they order confined in the custody of those who have already shown they will neglect, torment and kill us with startling frequency.

"Please stop killing your prisoners"
Arizona Department of Corrections: 
Central Office, Phoenix
(November 22, 2011)

Thank you for your time and patience with me. I wouldn’t have been so candid with most judges, I don’t think, so I sure hope you’re as cool as you seem to be; I mean no disrespect. If anything, take it as a sign that I trust you to be able to handle it, which is saying a lot for someone with your kind of power.

Take care,

Peggy Plews
Prison Abolitionist

Abandoned Tent City Guard Tower
Maricopa County Jail, Phoenix
(April 4, 2011)

Perryville Prison Deaths in Custody: Forrest Day, 19.

UPDATED 2/2/2012:  

The answers to those of my questions below which can be derived from criminal and court records are in this new article by the Arizona Republic. I'm choosing not to re-print it here because the article positions Forrest's behavior problems in a way that seems to justify her being sent to prison in the first she was just a "bad girl". I don't accept that premise. She acted out the way children do when troubled...and troubled children, in my book, do not belong in adult prison.

So, if you plan to contact either the judge or prosecutor in this case, do check out the AZ Republic article linked to above to see just the surface of what they were looking at, through the eyes of the criminal justice system. Before you make up your mind what to write, though, read the note below from this friend of Forrest's family as well...


  Forrest Day, at 16.

UPDATED (9/31/12): 

At the age of 16, despite being too young to be trusted to drink, drive, smoke, vote, or even get away with skipping school, Forrest Day was prosecuted as an adult for the death of her 8 month old baby. As recounted in the article below, she put her son in the bathtub then got distracted elsewhere in the house by writing poetry - behavior characteristic of a child. It's not even as if she went out partying and left him home alone, beat or shook him, or even filled up the tub.

It doesn't appear that Forrest was even accused of intending to hurt her child. You don't have to will a person harm in order to be charged with negligent homicide, of course, though I suspect they hit her so hard to begin with in order to coerce her into a plea deal on the felony child abuse charges - which I also think were a stretch in this circumstance. 

This case may not be entirely a matter of Andrew Thomas' office overreaching again, though. It looks like the state law requires prosecutors to file charges in adult court when certain felonies and violent crimes are involved - when that happens, though, it appears as if that court then has discretion over where the case is heard.

In any event, Forrest's prosecutor was Suzanne E. Cohen. Her office with the Maricopa County Attorney is at: 301 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix, AZ 85003. She's just applied to be nominated as a judge, so this would be a good time to write to her about her take on charging children like Forrest as adults (according to the DOJ's research, it doesn't reduce crime). She just helped prosecute the Baseline Killer and got a few death sentences, so there's a good chance she could end up on the Superior Court bench in the next couple of years. 

Forrest was sentenced to probation, and then to prison, by Michael Kemp, a judge from Juvenile Court. I can't tell from the records who actually made the decision to let the state prosecute her as an adult, though. If you have questions about why he did what he did and what he thinks about charging children like her as adults - kids with no criminal record or intent - direct them to him. He can be reached at:
Northwest Regional Center (NW)
14264 W. Tierra Buena Lane
Surprise, AZ. 85374
(602) 372-9400

Within less than 6 months of being charged, facing decades in prison if convicted on both counts, Forrest pled guilty to class 3 felony child abuse. Here's the news article on her plea. In return, the state dropped the homicide charges and she was sentenced to 7 years of probation; upon entering her plea she was sent home with her parents and essentially ordered, ironically, to resume the life of a "normal" teenager. 

For those of you who have never been on probation or parole, it's not as easy as you may think to abide by. Forrest violated hers within a year, just before her 18th birthday. I don't know what she did to get into trouble with the court - she apparently wasn't charged with a new crime. She did get pregnant again, though, and wanted to keep her unborn daughter - forbidden by the judge. She was only allowed to see her at the hospital once she was born.

Forrest was committed to the custody of the AZ Department of Corrections on November 10, 2010, soon after having her second child. For breaking her probation, Kemp gave her 3 1/2 years in state prison on the original child abuse conviction. For neglecting her child at the age of 16, the rest of us condemned her to live - and die - with the guilt and stigma of killing her son as if she had intended to. We just can't seem to dole out enough punishment in Arizona to satisfy the electorate here, and it looks like we're letting the legislature get away with refusing to address sentencing reform again this session, so we do share some responsibility here...

Sadly, Forrest committed suicide on January 27, 2012 at Perryville Prison on the maximum security yard, Lumley. She was only 19 years old. Hers was one of three prison suicides last week, in fact; she was the youngest. Our condolences go out to Forrest's parents and other loved ones. I can't think of anything more devastating than surviving the loss of one's child.

This weekend a friend of Forrest's family left a comment at the bottom of another post, speaking to the beautiful soul she knew her to be, that is better placed here: 

-------------from Arizona Prison Watch--------------

Tina Schwindt has left a new comment on your post "Criminal Damage and Deaths in Custody: Letter to t...":

"I am a close personal friend of the Day family and I want to thank you for trying to bring this tragedy to the people's attention. Forrest wasn't a bad person, she had a lapse in judgement, just like millions of other 16 year old kids do every day. She was funny, kind, loving, artistic and so much more. I believe that the state wanted to use her as an example to other young mothers and it backfired horribly. This young girl never should have been put behind bars in an adult prison with the women who actually committed murder freely and willingly. She did not take her babies life intentionally, it was just a horrible accident. 

Accidents happen every day to a multitude of people, for instance the mother whose 2 year old baby got out of the house 4 years ago and tumble onto Thomas road and was hit and killed by a car. The mother had several children and didn't notice the baby gone until it was too late, but she never got charged for any crime. 

I want people everywhere to know that Forrest was an amazing young woman who wanted to go to culinary school to make her life better, but she will never get that opportunity now. I also wanted to say that Forrest gave birth to a beautiful baby girl right before she was incarcerated and the baby is the spitting image of her mommy. The family has custody of the baby, and I can only imagine that they feel very blessed by this wonder born from tragedy. Thank you so much for letting me speak my mind. You are doing a wonderful thing here!"

----------from the Arizona Republic archives (2009)--------

Police: Teen mom was writing poem when baby drowned

A 16-year-old Avondale girl facing felony child abuse and negligent homicide charges was distracted by writing poetry while her 8-month-old son drowned in the bathtub, according to a police report.

Forrest Day, pleaded not guilty at her arraignment Wednesday, following her indictment on April 23. Day will be tried as an adult and is due back in court June 18.


Day's son, Elijah James Day, drowned about 3:30 p.m. Feb. 21 after she set him down in the bathtub, turned the water on with the drain unplugged and left the room, according to the Avondale police report.

Day told investigators she was looking for a towel but got sidetracked with poems she was writing, the report states. After checking on Elijah after about five minutes, she said she went into her bedroom, saw her poetry book and started reading some old poems. She said she was gone for about 20 minutes this time.

Day said she went from her room to the living room, to her sister's room, and then outside on the back porch trying to find a quiet place to write. She eventually went into her parents' bedroom and closed the door behind her, according to police documents.

Day's 9-year-old brother and his friend were playing video games in the living room when the friend heard the water running in the bathroom and told her brother. Her brother went to the bathroom and found Elijah floating face down in the water.

He pulled him out of the water and yelled for his sister, the report says. Day tried CPR but when it didn't work, she took him across the street to a neighbor's house. The neighbor called police and administered CPR until police arrived.

Elijah was unresponsive to attempts to revive him, according to the report. He was airlifted to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, where he was pronounced dead at 4:36 p.m.

Day was "hysterical and crying," the report states. She told police she gave Elijah a bath almost daily but this was the first time she left him alone in the bathtub.

She faces one count of Class 2 felony child abuse, a dangerous crime against children; and one count of negligent homicide, a Class 4 felony.

Friday, January 27, 2012

New Yorker: Gopnick and the Caging of America

Excellent piece on the problems of mass incarceration in our country. Thank you, New Yorker.


The Caging of America

Why do we lock up so many people?


The New Yorker

January 30, 2012

A prison is a trap for catching time. Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison, but the catch is that American prison life is mostly undramatic—the reported stories fail to grab us, because, for the most part, nothing happens. One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich is all you need to know about Ivan Denisovich, because the idea that anyone could live for a minute in such circumstances seems impossible; one day in the life of an American prison means much less, because the force of it is that one day typically stretches out for decades. It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates. The inmates on death row in Texas are called men in “timeless time,” because they alone aren’t serving time: they aren’t waiting out five years or a decade or a lifetime. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.

That’s why no one who has been inside a prison, if only for a day, can ever forget the feeling. Time stops. A note of attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia—anxiety and boredom and fear mixed into a kind of enveloping fog, covering the guards as much as the guarded. “Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yard, / Some of us are prisoners, some of us are guards,” Dylan sings, and while it isn’t strictly true—just ask the prisoners—it contains a truth: the guards are doing time, too. As a smart man once wrote after being locked up, the thing about jail is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out. This simple truth governs all the others. What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment. For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world—Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment—time becomes in every sense this thing you serve.

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. Ours is, bottom to top, a “carceral state,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer, who right now finds himself imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.

The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) 

Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country. 

How did we get here? How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelling, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction? There’s a fairly large recent scholarly literature on the history and sociology of crime and punishment, and it tends to trace the American zeal for punishment back to the nineteenth century, apportioning blame in two directions. There’s an essentially Northern explanation, focussing on the inheritance of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, and its “reformist” tradition; and a Southern explanation, which sees the prison system as essentially a slave plantation continued by other means. Robert Perkinson, the author of the Southern revisionist tract “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire,” traces two ancestral lines, “from the North, the birthplace of rehabilitative penology, to the South, the fountainhead of subjugationist discipline.” In other words, there’s the scientific taste for reducing men to numbers and the slave owners’ urge to reduce blacks to brutes.

William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School who died shortly before his masterwork, “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice,” was published, last fall, is the most forceful advocate for the view that the scandal of our prisons derives from the Enlightenment-era, “procedural” nature of American justice. He runs through the immediate causes of the incarceration epidemic: the growth of post-Rockefeller drug laws, which punished minor drug offenses with major prison time; “zero tolerance” policing, which added to the group; mandatory-sentencing laws, which prevented judges from exercising judgment. But his search for the ultimate cause leads deeper, all the way to the Bill of Rights. In a society where Constitution worship is still a requisite on right and left alike, Stuntz startlingly suggests that the Bill of Rights is a terrible document with which to start a justice system—much inferior to the exactly contemporary French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which Jefferson, he points out, may have helped shape while his protégé Madison was writing ours.

The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong. Even clauses that Americans are taught to revere are, Stuntz maintains, unworthy of reverence: the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” was designed to protect cruel punishments—flogging and branding—that were not at that time unusual. 

The obsession with due process and the cult of brutal prisons, the argument goes, share an essential impersonality. The more professionalized and procedural a system is, the more insulated we become from its real effects on real people. That’s why America is famous both for its process-driven judicial system (“The bastard got off on a technicality,” the cop-show detective fumes) and for the harshness and inhumanity of its prisons. Though all industrialized societies started sending more people to prison and fewer to the gallows in the eighteenth century, it was in Enlightenment-inspired America that the taste for long-term, profoundly depersonalized punishment became most aggravated. The inhumanity of American prisons was as much a theme for Dickens, visiting America in 1842, as the cynicism of American lawyers. His shock when he saw the Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia—a “model” prison, at the time the most expensive public building ever constructed in the country, where every prisoner was kept in silent, separate confinement—still resonates:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.
Not roused up to stay—that was the point. Once the procedure ends, the penalty begins, and, as long as the cruelty is routine, our civil responsibility toward the punished is over. We lock men up and forget about their existence. For Dickens, even the corrupt but communal debtors’ prisons of old London were better than this. “Don’t take it personally!”—that remains the slogan above the gate to the American prison Inferno. Nor is this merely a historian’s vision. Conrad Black, at the high end, has a scary and persuasive picture of how his counsel, the judge, and the prosecutors all merrily congratulated each other on their combined professional excellence just before sending him off to the hoosegow for several years. If a millionaire feels that way, imagine how the ordinary culprit must feel. 

In place of abstraction, Stuntz argues for the saving grace of humane discretion. Basically, he thinks, we should go into court with an understanding of what a crime is and what justice is like, and then let common sense and compassion and specific circumstance take over. There’s a lovely scene in “The Castle,” the Australian movie about a family fighting eminent-domain eviction, where its hapless lawyer, asked in court to point to the specific part of the Australian constitution that the eviction violates, says desperately, “It’s . . . just the vibe of the thing.” For Stuntz, justice ought to be just the vibe of the thing—not one procedural error caught or one fact worked around. The criminal law should once again be more like the common law, with judges and juries not merely finding fact but making law on the basis of universal principles of fairness, circumstance, and seriousness, and crafting penalties to the exigencies of the crime. 

The other argument—the Southern argument—is that this story puts too bright a face on the truth. The reality of American prisons, this argument runs, has nothing to do with the knots of procedural justice or the perversions of Enlightenment-era ideals. Prisons today operate less in the rehabilitative mode of the Northern reformers “than in a retributive mode that has long been practiced and promoted in the South,” Perkinson, an American-studies professor, writes. “American prisons trace their lineage not only back to Pennsylvania penitentiaries but to Texas slave plantations.” White supremacy is the real principle, this thesis holds, and racial domination the real end. In response to the apparent triumphs of the sixties, mass imprisonment became a way of reimposing Jim Crow. Blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites. “The system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage,” the legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes. Young black men pass quickly from a period of police harassment into a period of “formal control” (i.e., actual imprisonment) and then are doomed for life to a system of “invisible control.” Prevented from voting, legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives, most will cycle back through the prison system. The system, in this view, is not really broken; it is doing what it was designed to do. Alexander’s grim conclusion: “If mass incarceration is considered as a system of social control—specifically, racial control—then the system is a fantastic success.”

Northern impersonality and Southern revenge converge on a common American theme: a growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
Brecht could hardly have imagined such a document: a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery. 

Yet a spectre haunts all these accounts, North and South, whether process gone mad or penal colony writ large. It is that the epidemic of imprisonment seems to track the dramatic decline in crime over the same period. The more bad guys there are in prison, it appears, the less crime there has been in the streets. The real background to the prison boom, which shows up only sporadically in the prison literature, is the crime wave that preceded and overlapped it.

For those too young to recall the big-city crime wave of the sixties and seventies, it may seem like mere bogeyman history. For those whose entire childhood and adolescence were set against it, it is the crucial trauma in recent American life and explains much else that happened in the same period. It was the condition of the Upper West Side of Manhattan under liberal rule, far more than what had happened to Eastern Europe under socialism, that made neo-con polemics look persuasive. There really was, as Stuntz himself says, a liberal consensus on crime (“Wherever the line is between a merciful justice system and one that abandons all serious effort at crime control, the nation had crossed it”), and it really did have bad effects.
Yet if, in 1980, someone had predicted that by 2012 New York City would have a crime rate so low that violent crime would have largely disappeared as a subject of conversation, he would have seemed not so much hopeful as crazy. Thirty years ago, crime was supposed to be a permanent feature of the city, produced by an alienated underclass of super-predators; now it isn’t. Something good happened to change it, and you might have supposed that the change would be an opportunity for celebration and optimism. Instead, we mostly content ourselves with grudging and sardonic references to the silly side of gentrification, along with a few all-purpose explanations, like broken-window policing. This is a general human truth: things that work interest us less than things that don’t.

So what is the relation between mass incarceration and the decrease in crime? Certainly, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, many experts became persuaded that there was no way to make bad people better; all you could do was warehouse them, for longer or shorter periods. The best research seemed to show, depressingly, that nothing works—that rehabilitation was a ruse. Then, in 1983, inmates at the maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Illinois, murdered two guards. Inmates had been (very occasionally) killing guards for a long time, but the timing of the murders, and the fact that they took place in a climate already prepared to believe that even ordinary humanity was wasted on the criminal classes, meant that the entire prison was put on permanent lockdown. A century and a half after absolute solitary first appeared in American prisons, it was reintroduced. Those terrible numbers began to grow.

And then, a decade later, crime started falling: across the country by a standard measure of about forty per cent; in New York City by as much as eighty per cent. By 2010, the crime rate in New York had seen its greatest decline since the Second World War; in 2002, there were fewer murders in Manhattan than there had been in any year since 1900. In social science, a cause sought is usually a muddle found; in life as we experience it, a crisis resolved is causality established. If a pill cures a headache, we do not ask too often if the headache might have gone away by itself. 

All this ought to make the publication of Franklin E. Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe,” a very big event. Zimring, a criminologist at Berkeley Law, has spent years crunching the numbers of what happened in New York in the context of what happened in the rest of America. One thing he teaches us is how little we know. The forty per cent drop across the continent—indeed, there was a decline throughout the Western world— took place for reasons that are as mysterious in suburban Ottawa as they are in the South Bronx. Zimring shows that the usual explanations—including demographic shifts—simply can’t account for what must be accounted for. This makes the international decline look slightly eerie: blackbirds drop from the sky, plagues slacken and end, and there seems no absolute reason that societies leap from one state to another over time. Trends and fashions and fads and pure contingencies happen in other parts of our social existence; it may be that there are fashions and cycles in criminal behavior, too, for reasons that are just as arbitrary. 

But the additional forty per cent drop in crime that seems peculiar to New York finally succumbs to Zimring’s analysis. The change didn’t come from resolving the deep pathologies that the right fixated on—from jailing super predators, driving down the number of unwed mothers, altering welfare culture. Nor were there cures for the underlying causes pointed to by the left: injustice, discrimination, poverty. Nor were there any “Presto!” effects arising from secret patterns of increased abortions or the like. The city didn’t get much richer; it didn’t get much poorer. There was no significant change in the ethnic makeup or the average wealth or educational levels of New Yorkers as violent crime more or less vanished. “Broken windows” or “turnstile jumping” policing, that is, cracking down on small visible offenses in order to create an atmosphere that refused to license crime, seems to have had a negligible effect; there was, Zimring writes, a great difference between the slogans and the substance of the time. (Arrests for “visible” nonviolent crime—e.g., street prostitution and public gambling—mostly went down through the period.)

Instead, small acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime. In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened—“hot-spot policing.” The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of “stop and frisk”—“designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,” as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it—that involved what’s called pejoratively “profiling.” This was not so much racial, since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same race or color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already. Minority communities, Zimring emphasizes, paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced. “The poor pay more and get more” is Zimring’s way of putting it. He believes that a “light” program of stop-and-frisk could be less alienating and just as effective, and that by bringing down urban crime stop-and-frisk had the net effect of greatly reducing the number of poor minority kids in prison for long stretches.

Zimring insists, plausibly, that he is offering a radical and optimistic rewriting of theories of what crime is and where criminals are, not least because it disconnects crime and minorities. “In 1961, twenty six percent of New York City’s population was minority African American or Hispanic. Now, half of New York’s population is—and what that does in an enormously hopeful way is to destroy the rude assumptions of supply side criminology,” he says. By “supply side criminology,” he means the conservative theory of crime that claimed that social circumstances produced a certain net amount of crime waiting to be expressed; if you stopped it here, it broke out there. The only way to stop crime was to lock up all the potential criminals. In truth, criminal activity seems like most other human choices—a question of contingent occasions and opportunity. Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals; criminals are the consequence of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes. Close down the open drug market in Washington Square, and it does not automatically migrate to Tompkins Square Park. It just stops, or the dealers go indoors, where dealing goes on but violent crime does not. 

And, in a virtuous cycle, the decreased prevalence of crime fuels a decrease in the prevalence of crime. When your friends are no longer doing street robberies, you’re less likely to do them. Zimring said, in a recent interview, “Remember, nobody ever made a living mugging. There’s no minimum wage in violent crime.” In a sense, he argues, it’s recreational, part of a life style: “Crime is a routine behavior; it’s a thing people do when they get used to doing it.” And therein lies its essential fragility. Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” Conservatives don’t like this view because it shows that being tough doesn’t help; liberals don’t like it because apparently being nice doesn’t help, either. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.

One fact stands out. While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. “New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, than it was at the height of the crime wave,” Zimring observes. Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison. The logic is self-evident if we just transfer it to the realm of white-collar crime: we easily accept that there is no net sum of white-collar crime waiting to happen, no inscrutable generation of super-predators produced by Dewar’s-guzzling dads and scaly M.B.A. profs; if you stop an embezzlement scheme here on Third Avenue, another doesn’t naturally start in the next office building. White-collar crime happens through an intersection of pathology and opportunity; getting the S.E.C. busy ending the opportunity is a good way to limit the range of the pathology.

Social trends deeper and less visible to us may appear as future historians analyze what went on. Something other than policing may explain things—just as the coming of cheap credit cards and state lotteries probably did as much to weaken the Mafia’s Five Families in New York, who had depended on loan sharking and numbers running, as the F.B.I. could. It is at least possible, for instance, that the coming of the mobile phone helped drive drug dealing indoors, in ways that helped drive down crime. It may be that the real value of hot spot and stop-and-frisk was that it provided a single game plan that the police believed in; as military history reveals, a bad plan is often better than no plan, especially if the people on the other side think it’s a good plan. But one thing is sure: social epidemics, of crime or of punishment, can be cured more quickly than we might hope with simpler and more superficial mechanisms than we imagine. Throwing a Band-Aid over a bad wound is actually a decent strategy, if the Band-Aid helps the wound to heal itself.

Which leads, further, to one piece of radical common sense: since prison plays at best a small role in stopping even violent crime, very few people, rich or poor, should be in prison for a nonviolent crime. Neither the streets nor the society is made safer by having marijuana users or peddlers locked up, let alone with the horrific sentences now dispensed so easily. For that matter, no social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years? It seems likely that anyone for whom those sanctions aren’t sufficient is someone for whom no sanctions are ever going to be sufficient. Zimring’s research shows clearly that, if crime drops on the street, criminals coming out of prison stop committing crimes. What matters is the incidence of crime in the world, and the continuity of a culture of crime, not some “lesson learned” in prison.

At the same time, the ugly side of stop-and-frisk can be alleviated. To catch sharks and not dolphins, Zimring’s work suggests, we need to adjust the size of the holes in the nets—to make crimes that are the occasion for stop-and-frisks real crimes, not crimes like marijuana possession. When the New York City police stopped and frisked kids, the main goal was not to jail them for having pot but to get their fingerprints, so that they could be identified if they committed a more serious crime. But all over America the opposite happens: marijuana possession becomes the serious crime. The cost is so enormous, though, in lives ruined and money spent, that the obvious thing to do is not to enforce the law less but to change it now. 

Dr. Johnson said once that manners make law, and that when manners alter, the law must, too. It’s obvious that marijuana is now an almost universally accepted drug in America: it is not only used casually (which has been true for decades) but also talked about casually on television and in the movies (which has not). One need only watch any stoner movie to see that the perceived risks of smoking dope are not that you’ll get arrested but that you’ll get in trouble with a rival frat or look like an idiot to women. The decriminalization of marijuana would help end the epidemic of imprisonment.

The rate of incarceration in most other rich, free countries, whatever the differences in their histories, is remarkably steady. In countries with Napoleonic justice or common law or some mixture of the two, in countries with adversarial systems and in those with magisterial ones, whether the country once had brutal plantation-style penal colonies, as France did, or was once itself a brutal plantation-style penal colony, like Australia, the natural rate of incarceration seems to hover right around a hundred men per hundred thousand people. (That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get lower in rich, homogeneous countries—just that it never gets much higher in countries otherwise like our own.) It seems that one man in every thousand once in a while does a truly bad thing. All other things being equal, the point of a justice system should be to identify that thousandth guy, find a way to keep him from harming other people, and give everyone else a break.

Epidemics seldom end with miracle cures. Most of the time in the history of medicine, the best way to end disease was to build a better sewer and get people to wash their hands. “Merely chipping away at the problem around the edges” is usually the very best thing to do with a problem; keep chipping away patiently and, eventually, you get to its heart. To read the literature on crime before it dropped is to see the same kind of dystopian despair we find in the new literature of punishment: we’d have to end poverty, or eradicate the ghettos, or declare war on the broken family, or the like, in order to end the crime wave. The truth is, a series of small actions and events ended up eliminating a problem that seemed to hang over everything. There was no miracle cure, just the intercession of a thousand smaller sanities. Ending sentencing for drug misdemeanors, decriminalizing marijuana, leaving judges free to use common sense (and, where possible, getting judges who are judges rather than politicians)—many small acts are possible that will help end the epidemic of imprisonment as they helped end the plague of crime. 

“Oh, I have taken too little care of this!” King Lear cries out on the heath in his moment of vision. “Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” “This” changes; in Shakespeare’s time, it was flat-out peasant poverty that starved some and drove others as mad as poor Tom. In Dickens’s and Hugo’s time, it was the industrial revolution that drove kids to mines. But every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world. At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care.