In Arizona, prisoners are just commodities - interchangeable and disposable ones, at that. We have a criminal justice system driven by political ambitions and profit incentives to exploit the misery of those who are simply accused and the "duly-convicted" alike, bleeding dry their scapegoated families in the process. We do great violence to the lives of those people we incarcerate for non-violent offenses like property damage and theft, drug addiction, prostitution, and the symptoms of mental illness, simply by ripping them out of their families and communities. We then exile them to what is now known as one of the most deadly, horrifying places to do time for ones' crimes in the country - the AZ Department of Corrections.
The AZ DOC's reputation these days is well-earned. Not only has the level of despair and violence skyrocketed, they're facing a class action suit over the gross neglect of medical and mental health needs of all state prisoners. According to the suit, the mentally ill are commonly placed in solitary confinement or maximum security settings where they can be locked away and forgotten, left to contend with their psychoses or extreme moods on their own. Most of those who kill themselves do so in isolation. Others, like Shannon Palmer and James Jennings, are placed while symptomatic with prisoners who can't tolerate them or are equally as disturbed and untreated, and subsequently end up assaulted or murdered by their cellies.
Prisoners like Nelson Johnson, who went on a hunger strike to protest conditions in the months before he died, are regarded as nuisances and troublemakers and frequently disciplined. Some are repeatedly accosted with pepper spray (according to family, Nelson had to be treated by paramedics after one such attack) and other coercive efforts to achieve compliance with orders being barked at them that they may not even have the capacity to understand, depending on their level of psychosis or their response to trauma.
Suicide watch is more of a punishment than a therapeutic intervention to help prisoners stay safe - no wonder Susan Lopez went back to her cell and hung herself instead, when offered such "assistance". And it's unclear how much attention rape survivors get for their trauma - Duron Cunningham was sexually assaulted, then subsequently set up for an attack by a CO he complained about, and was begging the state to place him in protective custody when he died.
Four years ago this spring, soon after Jan Brewer became Arizona's governor and appointed Charles Ryan to lead the Department of Corrections, one of the most horrific cases of prisoner neglect occurred at the state women's prison, ASPC-Perryville, in Goodyear. The death of Marcia Powell was treated as an anomaly by the media - a freak event in which a mentally ill prisoner was locked, mocked, and ignored in a cage in the desert sun for four hours and sadly succumbed to the heat. The community rallied to assure that her ashes had a final resting place outside of prison, then apparently forgot the other women left behind in that prison, even as some risked everything to send up smoke signals from the desert to get our attention. Few people outside of Perryville knew that Marcia was on a 10-minute suicide watch when she died, by the way.
Marcia's death came as a shock to prison administrators not because she'd been kept in the uncovered cage in the first place, but because other women had been kept in there for extended periods of time before without dying. Mentally ill or unruly women were often locked in there as punishment, while staff "waited out" their resistance or other behaviors, according to prisoners. One woman had been waited out for 20 hours just a few days earlier and didn't die, Director Ryan observed. The DOC's solution was simply to retrofit the cages with misters and shade, while the new governor and Director Ryan proceeded to gut the prisons of rehabilitative programs and lead the state in a direction of increasing callousness and brutality towards the state's most disenfranchised people: its prisoners. Nearly all the 16 DOC staff who were disciplined for ignoring Marcia Powell to death retained their jobs and none were prosecuted, though 7 were referred for criminal proceedings. The county declined to prosecute, stating there was "too much conflicting testimony" (prisoners v guards) to be sure of convictions.
I began investigating and documenting conditions in the state prisons soon after Marcia's death, and continue to monitor them. What seemed to be an exceptionally high incidence of suicide and homicides quickly got my attention, so I requested and analyzed the records of all prisoner deaths at the DOC from 2006 through the fall of 2010, when Shannon Palmer was so brutally murdered. I discovered that under Jan Brewer's administration and Charles Ryan's directorship, the prison homicide and suicides doubled nearly overnight, and has remained that high throughout their tenure. The assault rate skyrocketed, and detention cells are overflowing with men seeking protection from prison violence because the GP yards are being run by gangs and the Protective Custody yards are packed with those who have already escaped...though not everyone necessarily finds safety there, either. There are even race riots now.
The reasons for this have been hotly debated, with the state's narrative blaming a more violent prisoner population and too many staffing cuts under the previous director, among other things that aren't exactly true. Really, the most appalling cases of neglect occurring in our prisons is not for lack of staff, it's due to a pervasive culture of contempt for human life at the AZ DOC and the consequent gross breaches of duty. That applies to the deaths of not only Anthony Brown but also Marcia Powell, Tony Lester, Susan Lopez, Brenda Todd, Tom Reed, Ferdinand Dix, and so many more prisoners. The staff, it seems, are more criminal than those they are charged with caging and chaining every day.
This soul-sickness that infects the AZ DOC right now won't be healed by new suicide prevention training, increasing the staff-to-prisoner ratio, or locking more people down in max and supermax settings. It requires new leadership which values the human rights of those who lives it is charged to care for, and embraces the rehabilitative responsibilities of the field of "corrections". Prison-based programs and interventions in the community should be proven effective in reducing both recidivism as well as the harm done to vulnerable communities and populations by both crime and punishment in America today. That is not the rule at the DOC - the Good Old Boys network of Chuck Ryan's mentor, former director Terry Stewart, is still dominant with Ryan at the helm now; their attitudes and methods of intervention with offenders are barbaric and archaic and ineffective, and it's time for that whole crew to go. Governor Brewer needs to put someone in there who can do the job right.
Thanks again to investigative journalist Wendy Halloran and Channel 12/KPNX for bringing Anthony Brown's story to light...