As I explained at the time, the questions I posed were not rhetorical - I really needed help for Dana Seawright's mom. Dana was killed in July 2010 by the West Side City Crips in Lewis Prison for having a Mexican boyfriend. His mother, Kini, was devastated by his homicide, lost her job and home and was being victimized by Brewercare and the AHCCCS cuts. She tried to access victims' rights resources for crisis intervention, trauma support, and concrete emergency assistance, but her request was denied by the AZ Attorney General's office. Since her son was in custody at the time he was murdered, she was denied the victims' rights and resources other mothers of murdered children have.
That happened thanks to all you victims' rights advocates who helped pass the beloved 1990 Victims' Bill of Rights amendment to the AZ Constitution. It explicitly excluded prisoners from the same rights the rest of us have when raped, beaten, or locked in a cage in the desert to die. Those of you who really care about all crime victims need to look at the consequences of that decision to sell out the voiceless, and help me change the constitution before the state prisoner homicide and suicide rates double again.
The prosecutors and peace officer unions in this state no doubt played a big role in assuring that people in custody were constitutionally deprived of the rights of victims, as well as their survivors. Few people are liekly aware that the AZ Attorney General's office, which holds the checkbook for most victims rights funds in this state, is the same entity which defends the state against wrongful death suits when mentally ill men like Shannon Palmer are castrated and murdered in state custody, or women like Marcia Powell are left dying in the sun by her guards, or when five officers stand around and videotape a young man bleeding to death without trying to offer first aid.
It seems to be a conflict of interest for the AZ Attorney General's office to be hailed as champions of victims' rights when the most disempowered, vulnerable populations in the state - the incarcerated mentally ill, elderly, cognitively impaired, physically disabled, and "delinquent" children - aren't protected by their office. The last place many crime victims and their survivors in this state can look to for justice, in fact, is the AZ Attorney General's office.
Start talking to your legislators about this, families. And I hope all you advocates for justice start talking to the crime victims and survivors who you long since excluded from your midst. It is their exile and your indifference to their fate which makes the worst horrors of prison life all the more likely to be perpetrated on them...
Jan Upchurch, Administrator
Office of Victims' Services
Arizona Department of Corrections
1645 W. Jefferson - MC250
Phoenix, AZ 85007
Dear Ms. Upchurch;
I am a human rights activist, artist and blogger in Phoenix, and have been researching violence and suicide in AZ state prisons over the course of the past 2 years. This has opened my eyes and brought me into considerable more contact with victims of violent crime in ADC custody and their survivors than most members of the public. Do prisoners or the family members of prisoners qualify for victims' services through your office if they/their loved ones are crime victims while imprisoned at the ADC? If not, who advocates for them when prisoners are assaulted, raped, murdered, or neglected and abused (as in the case of Marcia Powell)? Additionally, who fights for policy changes that may prevent further victimization behind bars?
Many of those I see victimized at the ADC are evidently psychiatrically or developmentally disabled, and can't advocate for safer cellmates or protective segregation, or fight abusive COs or policies effectively through the grievance process or other formal systems - which arguably gives rise to more self-injurious behavior and violence out of frustration or sheer terror, a liability even if their inability to access legitimate processes keeps down the grievances and potential lawsuits. Mentally ill prisoners don't seem to be served by either DES' Protective Services Division or the AZ Center for Disability Law when victimized in custody, either. In fact, I believe all parties I just mentioned are in direct violation of the American with Disabilities Act and/or other federal mandates, as they pertain to disabled individuals victimized in custody, regardless of the AZ constitutional limits on their rights as crime victims, per se.
Furthermore, the perpetrators of prison violence and other institutionally-based crime - be they staff or inmate - are apparently seldom street-charged or prosecuted, suggesting that neither the Criminal Investigations Unit nor county attorneys hosting prisons take an aggressive role in promoting the rights of victims in custody, which seems to just tell criminals that it's who they victimize, not what they do to others, that really matters. How does the ADC plan to rectify that?
Given what we spend to keep people locked up, prison is the one place in society where crime should be under control and victims are promptly and professionally accommodated. I see no one who prisoners or families can go to out here when violent crime befalls them in prison, though - without being charged a fee for advocacy or counseling - which means these victims are easily victimized (and perhaps criminalized) again, if you don't serve them either. Even the Attorney General won't help them - he defends the ADC.
These are pointed questions, I know, but they are not rhetorical. I imagine there may be a conflict of interest with your office, but that shouldn't preclude a third party providing those services under contract with the state, just like they do for other crime victims and their families. I need this info ASAP in order to advise people who were victimized (or survived homicides of prisoners) in ADC custody of what resources are available to them; at least one grieving mother I've heard from is living on the verge of homelessness and I'm not sure where to refer her.
I see this as a serious problem underlying the continuation of prison violence, especially against vulnerable adults, made so by the symptoms of their disabilities. James Jennings is a tragic example of someone clearly killed because of their mental illness; both Shannon Palmer and his killer, Jasper Rushing, were reportedly pleading for protection - and both somewhat psychotic - when they were celled so fatefully together. Duron Cunningham reported that he was raped and assaulted before he killed himself. The list goes on.
I plan to begin a public education campaign in the coming weeks to address the issue of victims' rights (or lack thereof, under the state constitution) in custody, particularly as they apply (or don't) to surviving family members. The ADC can hinder that effort with propaganda obscuring the victimization of prisoners, help advance the field of victims' services by exploring and answering these questions thoughtfully, or do nothing but get out of the way. I invite your office into a dialogue about it, however, as I want to believe you serve for good reason. I don't know whether protecting the state or our citizens is your primary concern, though, as I don't know you. It should not have to be mutually exclusive, but seems to be given the litigation expected to follow incidents of violent crime against persons in custody.
Taking responsibility for the harm one causes or allows to be caused to another is part of the ethos of the criminal justice system. Making amends to victims - individuals, businesses, and communities, is seen as central to any kind of restorative justice, which the State of Arizona heartily endorses, as evidenced by the practice of ordering restitution when sentencing, and penalizing offenders further for failing to meet said orders. What does the ADC practice, when it comes to their own crime victims, though? Even if prisoners have no rights as victims, what about the principle of preventing future crime by making an example of perpetrators today? Why should violent criminals be provided with such blanket permission to practice on more victims before they leave prison, where they are supposedly being punished...
...None of this bodes well for how I see the prison privatization project going: the ADC is responsible for Kingman's lack of security, ultimately, and I saw nothing in the RFPs that were put out that indicates a particular concern for victims' rights. In fact, the objective set down by the ADC of making sure that no more than 1% of grievances are ultimately upheld troubles me. Correct me if I read that wrong: it just seems like an incentive to deprive prisoners of due process rights when they are harmed, not to protect them. There's no indication that private prisons would even issue press releases about prisoner deaths or abuse, or be accountable for their health and safety to the public in any transparent way. They're harder to see into than the state prisons are, giving rise to more risk of victimization.
I'm sure that given your position, you can understand my frustration and concern over the constitutionally-diminished value of prisoner's lives and the gravity of their suffering in custody, placing their very survival secondary to the state's interests in cutting costs. It manifests toxins at every level of society, such that ugliness flows from the community into the media whenever a prisoner kills themselves - look at the "comments" after every ADC press release on a suicide. It's tragic, what has become of us since the PLRA and the victims' rights amendments to state constitutions were made exempting prisoners from fundamental protections: our entire society has devolved, and I think I can make the connections.
I also think I can make the case that both these prisoners and their families are deserving of the same constitutional guarantees given all other citizens and non-citizens alike, when it comes to their welfare. Having fought most of my life to keep my own brother out of prison and harm's way - surviving the devastating suicide of a loved one myself, in the process - I'm free to tell that part of my own story, liberating others from the shame that may keep them from telling theirs. I have been a victim of violent crime, and cope now with a mood disorder and the remnants of PTSD; not much frightens me anymore. I've embraced the mothers of ADC's homicide victims, and helped my community bury our dead; I am intimately connected to this struggle. I will not relent until I know that AZ prisoners and their loved ones are getting their needs met, not brutalized, at my expense, in my name, for the sake of my own family's illusion of "safety".
Sorry to greet you so early with this level of frankness, but you seemed like an appropriate person to bring into the conversation. I appreciate your time and what thoughts you may have. I look forward to hearing back from you or the DOC's General Counsel on this matter soon.
Arizona Prison Watch
P.O. Box 20494
Phoenix, AZ 85036
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