QUEER PRISON WALLS
chalk art by Margie Diddams
Photography by Margaret Jean Plews
Phoenix City Hall (02/26/2103)
(EDITED to remove sensitive information on June 26, 2014)
NOTE: This is my response to reading Jan Brewer's May 1, 2014 letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder about Arizona's decision to refuse to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. I actually finished and sent this on June 9, also posting it to the Daily Kos.
I encourage all prisoners, former prisoners, and families of those presently in the custody of the AZ Department of Corrections to contact Attorney General Holder, as well, with your personal stories related to your safety or that of a loved one in prison. Now is the time to strike - the feds need to be dragged into this by more than just me. They need to hear all of you calling them out to take some responsibility for neglecting this mess. It's not like this is the first time they have heard from me, anyway...
chalk art on sidewalk: margaret jean plews
photograph: PJ Starr (phoenix 2011)
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
June 7, 2014
The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Attorney General, US Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001
Dear Attorney General Holder;
I am writing to provide a citizen’s rebuttal of Governor Jan Brewer’s statements of May 1, 2014 in her letter to you regarding the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which grossly misrepresented conditions in the state prison system during her reign. I am also intending this letter to serve as a formal request for a CRIPA Investigation into the pervasive patterns and practices at the Arizona Department of Corrections that place prisoners at exceptionally high risk for sexual victimization and complications from unresolved trauma, especially women, the mentally and otherwise-impaired, and LGBT prisoners.
I am emailing this letter with relevant links embedded, but will also be snail- mailing a copy to you with supporting documents (as well as some of my artwork, memorializing the ghosts of Jan Brewer and Chuck Ryan).
If you are unfamiliar with the case, Marcia was doing 27 months for a $20 blow job she agreed to give an undercover Phoenix cop one fateful day, and died in a cage in the Arizona sun in May of 2009, at ASPC-Perryville. That was after an extended “suicide watch” in the 107 degree heat, during which time a prisoner is supposed to be checked on every 10 minutes. After ignoring Marcia’s pleas for relief for four hours (one guard walked away offering no aid knowing she had even defecated on herself) - officers eventually noticed she had collapsed from the elements with second degree burns on her body and her organs failing; her core temperature at the hospital still exceeded the ability of thermometers to read it, which only went as high as 108 degrees. Not realizing she had a legal guardian and an adoptive mother, Ryan pulled the plug on her life support before the stroke of midnight - she died shortly thereafter.
chalk art by margaret j plews photo by PJ Starr
AZ DOC Central Office, Phoenix
DOC officers never expected that Marcia Powell would die out there because they had just left another woman in that cage for 20 hours 3 days earlier, and she didn’t die. See, Marcia’s death was horrific, but it’s not really shocking that it happened - the only wonder was that the DOC got away with punishing prisoners in the heat that way for so long.
That was less than five months into Charles Ryan’s tenure as Interim Director at the Arizona Department of Corrections, but he had begun disassembling the more rehabilitative and empowering programs his predecessor had implemented and imposing new policies immediately upon taking office. A former DW of Ryan’s alleged to the AZ Attorney General that the change the new director made about how to house cellies resulted in at least two homicides within the first 18 months of his rise to power there. But Ryan had moved up through the ranks under the more brutal directors whose bullying style of management he appears to have emulated, and thus played a large role for decades in cultivating the policies and ethos at the AZ DOC that are so deeply hostile towards prisoners who exercise their right to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. That tendency to resolve issues with violence or the threat of it trickles down from admin to officers to prisoner, and eventually ignites the flames that can bring a prison to its knees.
The good governor talked about Arizona’s “long traditions” of protecting citizens in custody - wow, is she out of touch. She hasn’t read Prof. Mona Lynch’s “SUNBELT JUSTICE” yet, about the trailblazing role the state has played in implementing draconian sentencing and correctional practices over the past 3 decades - the increase in criminalization for politics and profit that the rest of the country has seen the folly of and begun to abandon.
Its actually because of this state’s long tradition of depriving prisoners both of their rights as well as the most basic tools they need in order to fight for them that the AZ DOC is in such shameful condition now. Arizona’s 1990 constitutional amendment excluding prisoners from the definition of crime victim (and related rights and resources), the Lewis v Casey decision in 1996 eliminating the right of prisoners to access a law library among other things, and the Clinton-era Prison Litigation Reform Act (heavily lobbied for by then DOC Director Terry Stewart) were collectively devastating.
I have volumes of letters that will lead you to both victims and perpetrators of countless civil rights abuses precisely because the grievance procedure on most yards is a sham and the DOC obstructs efforts by prisoners to file suit by creating obstacles - especially for illiterate, Spanish-speaking, and mentally ill or developmentally disabled prisoners. In fact, the DOC has NO POLICIES translated into Spanish, despite nearly 20% of their population being foreign nationals, mostly from Spanish-speaking countries. I’ve been recruiting people to do the translations myself, as this is not a concern of the DOC’s so long as no Spanish-speaking prisoners grieve the lack of Spanish-language policies.
This means that Spanish-speaking prisoners (and other non-English-speakers) apparently need to rely on the skills of untrained staff and fellow prisoners who happen to speak some dialect of Spanish when they need to speak to medical, for example, or appeal a disciplinary action, or grieve their housing assignment. Most just suffer their time in silence.
If prisoners could fight abuse and neglect more effectively themselves, the DOJ and ACLU wouldn’t have to do it for them, and you know it as well as I do, Mr Holder. So does the AZ DOC - they put an extraordinary amount of energy into preventing prisoners from learning to articulate their grievances and use persuasion, negotiation and civil law to effectively change their world. There’s a prisoner petition, of sorts, going around that expresses well the barriers they encounter on their way to the courts while trying to exhaust administrative remedies, and offers some proposed solutions, as I recall. It is worth a look by your people.
As a result of a disempowered prisoner population (and, some argue, extremely weak correctional officers unions in AZ), the state prisons are fire traps, and prisoners often complain they are in decaying facilities with mold growing freely in corners, rats and roaches competing for space with the people, feces and blood smeared on the wall in suicide watch cells, inoperable hot water heaters in the winter and non-existent air conditioning in the summer, and scarcely enough food in the sack-lunch “sedentary diets” given to those in detention, administrative segregation and maximum security to keep them from starving to death. More prisoners are fleeing the violence on the yards than are being punished for perpetrating it.
THE FIREHOUSE, Phoenix AZ
40-foot sidewalk mural memorializing the ghosts of jan brewer...
According to the DOC, 75% of detention cells are full of guys who are unacceptable to or just plain uncooperative with the racialized gangs running the yards - those are the prisoners I hear the most from. The guys pass my name and addy around the detention cells as they do the 805 dance from prison to prison, because I send them the info they need to fight the DOC - stuff like the Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook. It costs me a few hundred bucks a month in printing and postage to keep up with the need for assistance...but, some people spend their time and money on their gardens or pets or kids - I just happen to be a little eccentric about helping the underdog. I think its a worthy investment, helping people help themselves.
Those prisoners filling the detention cells while fleeing the violence are either seeking Protective Custody (PC) or being punished for refusing their General Population (GP) housing assignments (with “refusal to house” tickets ) after being denied PC. The guys complaining about the assaults extortion and murders, in fact, are overwhelmingly being denied PC and maxed out (ie their good time and privileges are lost and their classification scores zoom up) on major disciplinary tickets for not doing anything to hurt anyone, while the ones behind the extortion, assaults and murders, drug trade and other evils are still free to dominate the prison yards and dictate the culture - often empowered by corrupt officers who want the gangs to help keep the grievances down on the yard, or to keep the assaults just between prisoners, or who just want to line their pockets to buy a new gun or truck.
I have read the Does v Stewart proposed settlement, by the way, and am well-familiarized with DOC policy - I can assure you that both the Does v Stewart agreement and the DO805 policy are routinely being blatantly violated by administrative staff at Central Office. I can say that with certainty after receiving hundreds of letters from prisoners and half as many more calls from family members over getting folks into safe housing since last winter. I have ample evidence the DOC is denying PC to almost ALL prisoners who seek it without the aid of an attorney or the very expensive assistance of Donna Hamm from Middle Ground Prison Reform.
(She’s done a lot of good work, don’t get me wrong - she just costs a pretty penny.)
Interestingly, Ms. Hamm, who charges a flat fee of $2500 to advocate for PC housing for a prisoner, claims a 85- 90% success rate for her clients, while about that same percentage of all PC requests each month are denied, according to the DOC, leaving hundreds of guys in detention each month awaiting the PC verdict. That alone should raise red flags that the DOC isn’t really using any real criteria when they decide who goes to PC and who goes back to the hole in the next GP yard to try again(or get killed), other than that prisoner’s or their family’s ability to litigate them.
And they don’t do the mental health checks they’re required to do on each guy who is turned down for PC to make sure he doesn’t kill himself out of terror. They can’t possibly meet that demand - Corizon isnt even meeting its minimum mental health care mandates. Thus, I believe guys are still probably killing themselves in the wake of PC denials, like Rosario Rodriguez-Boroquez did in the fall of 2010. A rape victim in the hole on the same MAX unit in Florence followed in his footsteps a week later. That second prisoner might have been saved had the DOC debriefed affected prisoners, they way they do with staff after suicides, homicides and traumatic deaths of prisoners or staff; correctional “best practices” would suggest they should.
Most recently, one gay prisoner who I had intervened personally for to advocate that he receive PC was denied PC and subsequently raped by his cellie, only to be denied PC again and placed in another GP yard. He had initially sought PC because his crime was widely publicized and the media indicated that his male lover was an accomplice - he was marked man on the yards, no matter what prison they put him in, and they knew it. That was not only deliberate indifference to his safety, I believe endangering that vulnerable prisoner -repeatedly - was an act of malice and spite in retaliation for my criticisms of the DOC’s staff who make those decisions. And that, sir, is a federal crime, I believe, for a state agent to do. Mr Ryan cannot be trusted to hold those staff responsible for harming that victim, the only party to his rape - to my knowledge - who sits in a detention cell tonight. My correspondence with Director Ryan and his staff about that case is enclosed in the packet.
Even though the victim in the above case had to be taken to a hospital and rape kit was done, there’s no reason to think the perpetrator will actually be held responsible or that further rapes will be discouraged by how this one will be handled. According to the AZ DOC’s current PREA report as posted on their website, out of 54 alleged “inmate-on-inmate unwanted sexual acts” and 30 alleged “inmate-on-inmate abusive sexual contacts” (I think they mean RAPE!) reported to them in 2012, absolutely none could be substantiated by the DOC’s CIU. Either the entire DOC prisoner population lies about rape and it never really happens in our state, or the DOC has no sincere commitment to either preventing it or responding effectively to it when it occurs.
Why should anyone even report their sexual victimization to the DOC, I’m asked? They end up being labeled as a snitch and sitting in the hole for months on end seeking PC, while the perpetrator gets off scott free to rape again. It’s especially disturbing to prisoners when the perp is a gang leader or enforcer, too - which is too often the case, particularly in re: the exploitation and abuse of transgender prisoners. “PREA reporting” has become a sick joke at the AZ DOC - it only stigmatizes the victim, who too often gets no counseling, nor are they very often placed in protective custody or mental health programs beyond the term of the rape investigation, even though research shows that most prisoners are at exquisite risk for even further victimization and deterioration of their mental status once they are raped the first time.
In addition to the recent example of the prisoner who was deliberately placed at risk by DOC staff with a bone to pick with me, I know of one gay prisoner who was verbally abused expressly for being gay after he reported rape (along the lines of you deserved it you fucking fag), in an incident in which he ended up biting staff while being taken down when he refused to sit on the floor to take more of the abuse. The rape victim got an extra year and half added onto his sentence as a result, and had to beg his judge to tell the DOC to place him in PC before they finally relented and did so. I believe he was more traumatized and harmed (by way of being charged with assaulting the staff) by the DOC’s response to his rape report and request for PC than he was by the actual sexual assault on him in the first place.. He is more than willing to make a statement if you will interview him.
I’m also wondering if the DOC ever reported the suicide of Forrest Day as a potential PREA issue. She had reported to her sister before she died that she was being sexually pressured/propositioned by an officer which she found disturbing, but his identity wasn’t revealed to anyone before she was found hanging in her cell, so he couldn’t be investigated. It no doubt never would have been substantiated anyway - you know how it is, when it comes down to the word of a prisoner against a crooked cop: the bad guys in power always win. So, again, why bother reporting rape in Arizona’s DOC even if PREA was implemented, the prisoners want to know. What would be any different than it is now, in practice, even if the DOC did say they were on board with the feds? The culture is so misogynistic and transphobic that it will take not only re-training, but years of just cleaning house - all those good old boys of Chuck Ryan’s and Terry Stewart’s need to go in order to turn this Titanic around.
That isn’t about to happen if Jan Brewer is left to her own devices here, though, because she has been unmoved by the needless tragic deaths, the abysmal medical care, or the DOC’s brutal response to those trying to simply flee the violence - and its not like I haven’t been emailing her staff my blog posts all this time - they know, at least, even if she doesnt. No matter what new atrocity is perpetrated on prisoners at the AZ DOC, Jan stands by her man, and so is either completely fooled by him and sheltered from public opinion, or she is fully aware of all that I’ve told you about, and is flat out lying to you in that May letter. If that’s the case, I’d like to know why they’re so damned determined to keep the DOJ out of their prisons.
Either way, be it due to ignorance or complicity with evil, Jan Brewer has consistently failed to provide any leadership around protecting prisoners - not even the children. She says that Arizona is a “leader” in protecting our most vulnerable people, especially kids and the mentally ill. After all, everything she’s done to improve mental health care and child protection is going to be her legacy - which is truly sad, because she hasnt done much on those fronts short of the medicaid expansion, which was to save the hospitals from going under as much as it was for the good of the poor here.
I dont know if she recalls - or ever even knew - that the last kid to suicide at the Adobe Mountain Detention Center run by the AZ Department of Juvenile Corrections did so after some of the other kids relentlessly bullied him for being gay and mentally ill. It seems the staff didn’t know how to deal with either queer kids or serious mental illness. I hope they do now. Charles Flanagan who took over the AZDJC several years ago, has not invited nearly the scrutiny of his department by me that Ryan has, so he might be doing something right there - or at least not so horribly wrong as his former boss. I’ll be terribly disappointed if he advised the Governor not to comply with PREA as well, though.
What I’m saying here is that Jan Brewer is either deliberately whitewashing the prison picture here, or she just doesn’t know what she’s talking about when it comes to prison rape, plain and simple. I can verify myself that Chuck Ryan knows everything I’ve told you of and more because most of what was reported to me along those lines I passed on to him, personally. I have lots of emails documenting it all.
The problem is that Ryan doesn’t tell the truth about any of this, either - he even insists to the legislature that there’s NO SOLITARY CONFINEMENT practiced at the AZ DOC (that’s just semantics, but the legs accept his answer as evidence that the ACLU is hysterical and over-reacting) - so you can’t count on him to give you an accurate assessment of whether or not the AZ DOC is doing its job when it comes to protecting prisoners from violence, exploitation, and rape.
No, Mr. Holder, you really need to come talk to me and the families I work with- not just have the FBI spy on me and my buddies in black. Look at my files and analyze my data yourselves. Visit my correspondents. Chat with former employees like former Eyman DW Carl Toersbijns or former Perryville officer Gary Bullock, former ASPC-Lewis Lieutenant Chuck Bauer, former Corizon employee, Teresa Short, AZ State Representative Chad Campbell, who has called for Ryan’s resignation, or any number of other parties to this disaster who I could introduce you to so you can verify mine and the the prisoners’ accounts of prison conditions and the many assaults on their safety - including sexual assaults and exploitation - in the AZ DOC.
While you’re at it, subpoena the records from the AZ Corrections and Peace Officers Association - they had thousands of DOC employees sign onto a letter of no confidence in Chuck Ryan to Jan Brewer not two years into his tenure. That letter alleged that, among other things:
“...There exists, within ADOC administration, a well-known pattern of obstructing the disclosure of hazards in time to prevent accidents, injury, illness, and deaths. Tragically, in these instances, danger is not "imminent" - it is past, and too late to respond. Employees are routinely ordered to falsify documents and when they proactively seek to report identified hazards, they face punishment and retaliation. Obtaining an accurate account of the range and extent of violations will be difficult from records alone. It is unlikely that ADOC will disclose information without well-planned intervention by authorities.”
These are strikingly similar to the allegations that prisoners make, which are often dismissed as “unsubstantiated”. The Governor completely ignored the union’s letter, by the way, so its not the credibility of the source that's really the issue - it’s simply a critique she doesn’t want to hear.
In addition to the letters I get from current AZ DOC prisoners, I’ve reviewed hundreds of death reports since the the start of the current administration. I call tell you that prisoners routinely die of both indifference and outright abuse here, and Charles Ryan’s DOC sometimes uses their Criminal Investigations Unit to cover up homicides they didn’t feel like pursuing or listing for the feds as such. Like PC and SP. The AZ DOC’s inspector general’s office didn’t even have the decency to tell PC's mother that his death was more likely than not a homicide, instead of a suicide. They just left her believing her child had taken his life. Fortunately, PC’s mom never bought it and had her own autopsy done - which revealed that there was plenty of evidence he was murdered the DOC never even bothered to look at...
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I dont know if the CIU is corrupt or just has an irresponsible ethos that has no regard for the survivors of victims of violence in their custody. Maybe they are all just lazy - though I suspect the Ryan administration calculated that they would be more liable to a mother whose child was murdered instead of one whose child committed suicide in custody, and decided that if she wasn’t going to sue over a suicide, they better not tell her it was murder, or someone will start to dig...
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In any case, the DOC can’t be trusted to investigate themselves and be forthright with their discoveries, and the ACLU is already busy with the health care and psychiatric concerns, including the abuse of solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners. That’s why we need the feds in on this matter of prisoner safety and prison rape now. Charles Ryan’s Criminal Investigations Unit has no credibility with the prisoners, the staff, or the advocates who know what’s going on in there. Nor do his media and legislative liaisons - they outright lie to the public and elected officials about the heinous behavior of their employees and the corporate jackals who feed off the imprisoned population. Just ask the journalists who have been covering the DOC under Ryan’s tenure - like KPNX’s Wendy Halloran, who won an Emmy for pursuing the truth about the suicide of Tony Lester, or the AZ Republic’s Bob Ortega, who did a fantastic series on “Arizona’s Other Death Row” - that is, the mainstream prison population, which he noticed was dying by suicide, drug overdose, and homicide at unusually high rates after Ryan had been in charge for awhile.
I once had a contact at the DOJ’s Special Litigation Section - Aaron Zisser. I even sent him all the death records my mother bought from the AZ DOC for me to analyze. But I think Special Litigation abandoned AZ awhile ago, perhaps thinking the ACLU et al have it covered. Not hardly. And Ryan knows no one will hold him accountable for prison rape if the feds don’t - just look at his annual reports. For the past two years in the Five-Year Plans, Director Ryan has managed to invisibilize rape victims in his custody - its not even an institutional goal to reduce the incidence of sexual assaults in the prisons anymore, much less a priority.
Do you understand where I’m coming from here, Mr Holder?
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By the way, Arizona’s sole Protection & Advocacy authority, the AZ Center for Disability Law, won’t help or visit or investigate abuse reports from SMI prisoners under any circumstances. It appears that they only joined Parsons v Ryan in name because they were coerced into doing so. Now, they are the only ones in this state with the authority to get into those prisons on demand to see disabled individuals reporting abuse, and yet they adamantly refuse to exercise it. Is that legal, for a P&A agency to flat out discriminate against an entire population of disabled people solely because the institution housing and abusing them is a prison or jail, instead of a school or a nursing home? If they refuse to exercise that authority, another agency should be identified that will do so, and should be funded to do so. That’s got to be unconstitutional.
Along those lines, I want to quote from a letter I received from the women’s prison just yesterday - this is from (a prisoner) on Death Row, in a building where other maximum security prisoners - like the mentally ill - are held as well. She (wrote) despite risking retaliation from the state because she is so troubled by what she’s hearing and is afraid the women who cry and plead all day and night are too mentally impaired, traumatized, and intimidated to know how to get help themselves via the grievance process and courts…
“They have watch cells below us and I’m very concerned about our mentally ill being pepper-sprayed and drug around naked by male guards and videoed by male guards over the simplest issue. They yell at the mentally ill, scare them. then when they don’t comply (usually strip out) they spray them. They are forced to strip out 3-4 times a day with male guards walking all over. I hear some of them crying “I don’t want to get naked”. I understand security, but not these measures on the mentally ill…”
That sounds like a violation of the agreement the DOC made with the AZDOC some 15 or so years ago to keep a sexual harassment/abuse CRIPA complaint from proceeding to trial, is it not? Let me remind you that I myself have a major mood disorder and PTSD - is this the kind of treatment I can expect as an American citizen in our women’s prisons, should I ever find myself there?
(She) also reports the male officers don’t announce themselves on Lumley. That comes as no surprise - as indicated by the good governor’s letter to you, the DOC doesn’t think it’s necessary for them to do so, even though they are citing women for sexual offenses if they accidentally expose themselves while changing, or toileting, or showering. You know as well as I that most women in prison - especially the severely mentally ill - are already traumatized. Best practices would not say that security demands the male guards come through without announcing themselves. Best practices in corrections now would look at trauma-informed care more closely than the security aspect of that and say those women are being routinely retraumatized and violated by the AZ DOC’s policies and practices for no good penological reason. They are just not wanting to make sure female staff are available at all times for the women prisoners, though they are quite plentiful in the men’s prisons.
Well, I’ve covered a lot of ground, and there still so much more. I wish we could meet to discuss PREA and CRIPA matters further in person, but I know you have a lot on your hands already, so please have the appropriate staff contact me as soon as possible about this matter - I and the prisoners are requesting a DOJ CRIPA Investigation into these patterns and practices of violating prisoners civil rights, as well as the Governor’s decision to not bother with PREA mandates anymore. At the very least, you should call her out on that.
Thank you so much for reading this through, Mr Holder, if you’ve made it this far. I will be eagerly anticipating your reply. So will the prisoners and their loved ones.
Margaret Jean Plews