Margaret J. Plews
Arizona Prison Watch
PO Box 20494
Phoenix, AZ 85036
"Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness, and our ability to tell our own stories..."
- Arundhati Roy
Dear AZ State Prisoners:
This is an update to the October letter I put out about protective custody - though not much has changed. All of you I’m addressing right now are applying for protective custody - or have been turned down and will need to appeal or apply again. All that will really do is keep you in detention longer, though, and may result in more tickets for refusing to house. There’s a logjam in the system - the PC yards are full and the DOC isn’t approving anyone right now, that I can tell, without an attorney on board - or otherwise, the clear ability to fight them. I've heard from hundreds of you – and many of your families - in the past nine months alone, with no resources to hire a lawyer, though. I'm here to help you fight back.
Now, don't be mistaken about me – I'm no thug-hugger, and many of you on the outside would probably hate me for all I represent. I form alliances based on common values and goals, not common enemies or uniforms. I want liberation for everyone – not just a select few. I'm an anti-racist, anti-colonialist queer anarcha-feminist, as well as being a prison abolitionist. That last thing means I don't want to spend all my energy trying to reform the system to make it less odious for the rest of us to tolerate – I want to dismantle it altogether.
But that happens one brick at a time, and will require everyone's assistance. None of you will be much good to the movement if you're broken or dead, though – we need your voices in this, too, but when I looked into the prisons to find you I saw so many of you are in too much danger to pay attention. Basically, as I see it, giving you the tools you need to wage some kind of meaningful resistance to the state's deliberate indifference to your right to life is an investment in getting you to someday help us build a more just world.
If you appreciate that someone out here cares and want to give back, be sure you've spent this time owning your own shit and making amends to those you've harmed, first. Some of you are so burdened with shame that you make yourselves easy targets for thugs in orange and brown alike. If you feel bad about things you've done, take responsibility for them and make sure you become the kind of human being who won't repeat those same mistakes.
Begin now becoming the person you really wanted to be, instead, in your relationships with others – practice that on other prisoners right now. Become the guy who is known for being thoughtful, not reactionary, and for being strong enough to refuse to be brutal to the weak, when that would be so much easier. Become someone who can navigate the system to help others access health care, file grievances, and promote more humanity and unity in that foxhole you all share. Be known for your patience, humility, and wisdom, not your hot head and vile mouth (oh, if I could only practice more of what I preach!)
Most of all, if you are hiding in shame right now, become someone you are proud of, so when others say you're a piece of shit for this or that reason, you can stand tall and tell them they don't know you or have any right to judge you, and to fuck off. Just don't stand around and wait to be smashed – have an exit plan for confrontations like that.
If you have cultivated relationships with other prisoners over time based on the above kinds of traits, they will begin to back you up because they respect who you are, rather than judge you for who you once were. The guys judging you have done their own share of bullshit themselves, too, and if you push back against that shit, you might just be surprised who backs down.
While you're sitting in the hole wondering how to convince DOC not to throw you to the wolves, don't think you can make things better for yourself by throwing someone else under the bus. I promise you it will do you no good to give up information that may hurt others, and only helps the state. If I thought they would actually protect the more vulnerable prisoners from harm by acting on such intelligence, then I might provide it to them myself. But all they do is punish the victims anyway (to keep them from spilling the beans that Chuck Ryan has lost all control), and use allegations to justify more violence of their own, like TSU shakedowns, building more Supermax cells, “validating” prisoners on evidence and hearsay that can't be challenged for the STG dungeon, and so on. That's not to say don't report when you are assaulted, especially if you are raped. Just don't expect the state to reward you for doing so, and make sure that if you're identifying someone for them to go after, you are doing so as a stand against violence, rather than serving as a tool in the state's war on your fellow prisoners.
Don’t expect a letter from me to Central Office to win your argument for you, by the way – having me on your side won't always play in your favor with them. In fact, it could be a kiss of death, so think of me as a last resort if you have no one out here who can call me to learn how to help you in your struggle. I can’t step in the ring on your behalf, like an attorney can, in any case - if you can‘t afford one, you’ll need to do it yourself. Other then send you some material to study, all I can really do is be a witness and tell others - in my blogs and the federal courts, if need be - what transpires in your struggle. But you need that - someone to preserve and share evidence that DOC administrators and decision-makers are aware of the danger you face, which I need to keep hearing about in order to communicate to them. I can write about your fight for other pris0ners and their families to learn from, as well. Things have gone desperately awry in the state prisons in recent years, and the larger public needs to know that, too
Before I go any further, though, make sure that if you have ANY way of hiring a professional to help you, do so – just ask and I can give you a starter list of lawyers who have successfully sued the AZ DOC. I'm not even remotely literate in criminal or civil litigation. That said, if you‘re stuck with me and your own wits, it will be a long uphill fight, from what I see now, and you face the biggest risks. They may disrupt my work more if I get to be too effective or obnoxious, I suppose, but what you can do through the courts is more important, so you are the bigger threat, if you can figure this system out. Once informed, you scare Power even sitting quietly in the hole in nothing but your shorts. Remember that.
Most of you have been told you are being denied PS in part because you haven’t been assaulted yet. I need copies of the denial form the DOC gave you saying that. Ask the librarian for DO 902 - Access to the Courts. Attachments A&B, if I don’t send them, are what you need - ask for the “Rights of Prisoners, 4th ed.” to start with - it‘s huge, so scroll the table of contents and get the sections you need most. Look for Farmer v Brennan for the standard of indifference in a case about a transgender prisoner. Let me know if they want to bill you for photo-copies to keep on person, and how you deal with that if you’re indigent. Whenever you can send me your paperwork from the DOC refusing to help you access legal materials, please do. Just let me know if you’ll need it back.
Some of you have been denied PS because DOC asserts that you don’t face a documented statewide threat (even though you are being persecuted for being gay, or are in trouble with the New Mexican Mafia all over the place). The DOC also likes to say that your claims are just self-reported, as if you aren’t under any real threat unless the yard leaders personally sign a written death warrant for each of you on gang stationary. Reiterate the realities of life in the AZ DOC – the bad guys all have cell phones, so while you're restricted from calling your child or dying mother when you want, the guys running the yards have easy access to whatever they can dig up on you from the last yard you PC'd up on, and can send your image and whatever is following you to every prison in the state in a flash. They communicate better than the DOC does about where you are and where you've been.
I’m impressed by the number of those of you who just said no to the racism and violence when invited - or ordered - to join in. Some of you witnessed - and testified to - horrible crimes: that doesn‘t make you a “snitch“, in my book - though even snitches don‘t need to be silenced with violence. Most of you are in the 805 process for the same reason, though - a yard leader or gang member checked you out somehow, and for any number of reasons decided you were “no good”, giving you the choice of 1. leaving the yard (PCing up) 2. Assaulting someone and joining them or 3. Being assaulted or killed yourself. There are a lot of things wrong with the logic behind that particular strategy for recruiting gang members, by the way.
According to the yard leaders these days, the police report is the standard by which someone who is otherwise undesirable is able to be identified. The truth is, however, the guy you really need to be worried about took the fifth when he was nabbed by the cops and made a sweet deal with the prosecutor later at someone else's expense. I can actually understand the guy who shit his pants when he was put into cuffs and confronted with his crimes – sometimes that just tells you who has a conscience. That whole method of finding out who can and can’t be “trusted” to share a prison yard with is fundamentally flawed – I think it’s just an excuse to put the green light on guys who wont immediately bend to the authority of the gang, and to give the new recruits target practice.
People interested solely in pursuing their own profit, at whatever cost to others, are sociopaths. That seems to characterize the behavior of prison gangs, too - they have nothing to do with resisting the state - they strengthen it, instead. The state is all about it’s own needs too, not “the People’s” but at least it tries to manipulate people into being loyal before it threatens to kill us. There is a show of state defiance by gangs, but they rule the yards with the consent of state power to divide and conquer prisoners - and addict and terrify you - so you can’t effectively mount resistance against your captors for the conditions of your confinement. Otherwise, prisoners would be organizing across race and putting an end to some of the bullshit the DOC perpetrates on you. Those gangs should be showing solidarity with the struggle of prisoners, based on some of their espoused ethics, not adding to the misery.
There will come a time when the norm on GP prison yards will be closer to the one you seek in PS, but that will only be after a fight - your fight, not mine. It may be up to you guys, not the state, to undermine the authority of the gangs by providing collective safe harbor for others who resist them in the meantime. Just how to do that right now, I don’t know. This is not the way it has to be, though. An empire protected by an army of men recruited specifically because they have no integrity is vulnerable to men of conscience. And the state is vulnerable to those who are armed with knowledge of the law. The way I plan to fight both the gangs and the state is by empowering each of you.
Most of you guys have got the first one down - you’ve already said no to hurting more people or compromising who you are as a way to survive. You may take a beating in more than one way in prison, but if you survive you can come out of there whole and proud of who you are, nonetheless - which is the only way to win,. The whole goal of prison - from the dehumanization to the constant threat of violence - is to break you as a potential revolutionary, not make you stronger and more articulate and critical of the state upon release to your home communities - which desperately need your help, by the way. Learn to fight by the rules now as practice for when you get home, so you can help your people fight back effectively as well.
Anyway, I respect those of you who have resisted the gangs because you reject their politics and tactics. To those of you who just want to get out of alive - that’s okay too. I will do whatever I can to help you in your struggle not only for personal protection but for a more safe place for all to do their time. Detention cells and specially designated yards should be reserved for the few thugs - in orange and brown alike - who ruin it for everyone, not the other way around. The exile of prison is bad enough punishment - once you get there, GP should be where you guys are free to work, participate in programming, and so on without abuse and harassment following you - not where the real criminals just refine their predatory skills until they get unleashed again on the rest of us.
How I can be most helpful, though, in helping to change that culture, is yet to be seen. Be mindful that if you correspond with me and raise a fuss about your rights you‘ll be in the doghouse with the DOC, and if the gangs ever find this letter we’re all in trouble with them and the state together - they will reach out and touch me for this, no doubt, so be careful where you let this fall.
As for your fight with the state, here’s some of what seems to be helpful - in my unqualified opinion:
Read the actual DOC policies about the 805 process. Follow them to the letter, and go through with an appeal even if you think it’s pointless - that‘s called exhausting your administrative remedies. This is your chance to inform the people you may ultimately have to sue of the danger against you, and their chance to respond before it results in further harm or goes to court. Give it a good faith effort on your part, but make your argument a compelling legal one, not an emotional one. And expect at this point to have to go through this process several times, at least - PCing up, waiting in detention, being denied and moved to another yard, being threatened again or assaulted, and beginning the 805 process all over.
Save and collect evidence supporting your claim that you need protection from an identified statewide threat. This includes anything from threatening kites to signed statements by other prisoners willing to testify about real prison life - like how the proliferation of cell phones means that everyone is targeted as a snitch or gay or “no good” on every yard in the system, now, within days of arriving. Or how the higher level yards are run by yard leaders, not by the guards, and what evidence you may have that the DOC is well aware of that fact - like a sergeant going out to negotiate your safety directly with a yard leader instead of starting the 805 process, or guards making deals with the leaders on the side.
Copies of statements you give the DOC about criminal activity, as well, is evidence that you are in danger - but don’t have that stuff in your property, or some porter will snatch it and then you’ll really be in trouble. If the DOC says you need to provide them with copies of your police reports yourselves and you just can‘t get them, write down the reference numbers and where they can be obtained and tell them they are responsible for assuring that those are in your 805 file, if they doubt your claims about their contents, as it isn’t safe for prisoners to have them in one’s possession in prison.
Build a parallel file of evidence and copies of 805 requests, responses, and appeals with someone you trust out here - preferably the loved one who will have standing to sue if you are killed or incapacitated, and will need the evidence you have to do so. Any HNR’s, incident reports, or other documents you have the pertain to harm you sustained as a result of an assault are important too. The DOC is known for rifling through property to find and destroy documentation that could be used against them.
Note the dates of major incidents - like assaults or the initiation of your 805 request - as well as locations, the names of officers who may have obstructed your attempt to file an 805, the names and titles of officials up the chain of command who denied you protection, names of witnesses to assaults or threats made against you (including doctors who treated you), etc. You will need all that later, if you have to sue in court for your safety.
Get a copy of the National Lawyer’s Guild Jailhouse lawyer’s Handbook. It’s not the same thing I send you chapters from - it’s more of an overview of all the stuff you need to know about fighting for your rights. They will send it to you for $2 (stamps, check, money order). Have a loved one print it from their website, or write to them yourself - they have to mail it directly to you from the NLG:
National Lawyers Guild / 132 Nassau Street, Rm 922 / New York, NY 10038
Have your loved ones write letters to the Department of Corrections making the same kind of legal argument that you do when you apply for your 805, showing that they are aware of what evidence you have for your claims, and make sure they send the letters certified. If they email me I can send them the same materials I send you guys, so they know just what you need to know to fight the state. Don't confess things to them or me that you don't wan the state to know, though, or we may inadvertently place you at greater risk.
The best people to include in their correspondence to the DOC appear to be; Charles Ryan, Director; Keith Smith, Security Operations, Stacey Crabtree, Offender Services; and the Warden and DW of your prison. They don’t need to threaten anyone with a lawsuit right away or make accusations that the DOC is intentionally trying to get you killed - just have them state your argument clearly, emphasizing the statewide nature of the threat against you and the expectation that you do not have to be assaulted (again) or killed before they take your safety seriously. The address to AZ Department of Corrections is 1601 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix, Az 85007.
If they put the following people in the cc (they need to note at the bottom that’s what they’re doing so the DOC knows it) and send us all copies, it may help to at least let the DOC know you have other witnesses, in case something does happen to you:
AZ State Representative Chad Campbell (1700 W. Washington St., Phoenix, Az 85007)
Wendy Halloran (AZ Republic/KPNX News 200 E. Van Buren, PHX 85006)
Dan Pochoda, ACLU-AZ (PO Box 17148, Phoenix, AZ 85011)
Let me know each step of the way what’s happening, including if anyone is obstructing your efforts to access the 805 process, legal information or the courts. I can’t give you legal advice, per se - you’re going to have to find a lawyer for that - but I can send you information and ideas if you’re going to wing this yourself. If you need the Jailhouse Lawyer chapter on safety still, or info on the PLRA, write to me. If you need info on how to file a civil suit yourself in Arizona, write to the US District Court nearest you, and ask how to file a section 1983 complaint on your own behalf - they, not me, know how to do it right:
Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse
401 W. Washington Street, Suite 130
Phoenix, AZ 85003-2118
Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse
405 W. Congress Street
Tucson, AZ 85701-5010
If you’re waiting for something from me and think I forgot you, write to me again - I’m sorry, it’s not because of anything you’ve said: I’m just really swamped, and your letter may have been buried on my desk three weeks ago. If so, only a new one will bring you back to my attention. If I don’t get back to you - if no one from this address does - then the state will have managed to shut me down somehow. Hopefully they won’t have snatched my computer and files, too, and someone from my end will still be able to follow up with you. But don’t hold your breath if my side goes silent one day - once they come for me, I’ll probably be tied up for awhile. Not that I’m doing anything criminal - just that the state doesn’t like people who help prisoners help themselves.
That’s why it’s important for you to learn what you can about your legal rights yourselves. People out here aren’t reliable for one reason or another, and no matter what anyone else does on your behalf, if the state thinks you won’t be in a position to actually fight for your rights in court, they won’t prioritize your safety or welfare. They’ll take all the guys who have lawyers and know what they’re talking about first, and put you back in GP for another round or two - or three or four.
So, that’s a lot for you to think on. I’m still developing a new strategy for dealing with this, and will let you know what other thoughts or resources I come up with if you keep me current with your address. Please keep me posted on your cases, and watch each others' backs. In any event, don’t stop writing, or your stories won’t get out. That’s what the DOC wants, is to isolate you again and keep their dirty little secrets in-house. Don’t let them win.
also see the Jailhouse Lawyer's Auxiliary Guild-AZ Blog for more resources