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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Friday, September 10, 2010

Suing over prisoner suicide in Buffalo: DOJ to settle for less.

The final thought from the DOJ in this article - that all they want out of this county in New York is compliance with the minimum constitutional standards for conditions of confinement in their jail - troubles me. No wonder Arpaio is actually pondering a presidential bid for 2012. There are no real federal consequences to individuals or communities for neglecting people to death - or even giving them the tools they need to kill themselves - if you're systematically violating their civil rights in the process - at least, not if they're prisoners. If this was a nursing home, on the other hand, the public would be outraged and people would at least be criminally charged by the state.


Small Jails Have Big Suicide Problem

County jails serve as de facto psychiatric wards.
(This story [1] first appeared on the ProPublica website [2].)

At the 680-bed Erie County Holding Facility, a small jail on the shores of Lake Erie in Buffalo, N.Y., six inmates have committed suicide in the past five years, as many as at Rikers Island, the sprawling New York City jail that typically houses about 14,000 inmates.

In 2007, an Erie inmate killed himself by diving off a 15-foot railing in full view of sheriff's deputies. That same year, an inmate took his life after officials removed him from 24-hour suicide watch and put him with the other inmates. In 2008, two detainees used bed sheets to hang themselves from air vents, raising to 15 the number of inmates who had committed suicide this way, or tried to, since 2002.

County jails, most of them originally designed to hold low-level offenders, now serve, to some degree, as de facto psychiatric wards. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca famously referred to the jails he oversees as "the largest mental health institution in the country."

While large jail systems have made substantial inroads in safeguarding mentally ill inmates, sharply reducing suicide rates since the early 1980s, some smaller jails—hobbled by poor layouts, thin staffing and inadequate training—are struggling to meet the most basic requirements set by federal law.

Their shortcomings can take a deadly toll. Suicides account for more than two of five deaths at smaller jails, versus fewer than one of five in the country's 50 largest jails, Bureau of Justice Statistics show. Despite improvements in prevention techniques, inmates at smaller jails remain twice as likely as those at larger jails to die by their own hand. Detainees at the Erie facility kill themselves at a rate five times the national average.

"It is difficult for these small jails when they are competing with resources that go to free society," said Christine Tartaro, an associate professor of criminal justice at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey and co-author of the 2009 book Suicide and Self-Harm in Prisons and Jails.

The Justice Department’s civil rights division issued findings on six jails nationwide last year for providing substandard mental health care. Four were smaller jails, housing 1,500 inmates or fewer, the Erie County Holding Facility among them.

The Justice Department began its investigation into problems at the Erie County jail in 2007, but local officials denied its experts unfettered access to the facility and failed to make improvements voluntarily, court records show. Stymied, the department sued the county last September, alleging it had an "inability to supervise inmates, identify inmates at risk for suicide, correct deficiencies in cells that facilitate suicide attempts, and prevent likely suicide attempts."

Erie County officials did not return phone calls from ProPublica about the case. County Attorney Cheryl Green has asserted in court documents that the jail meets constitutional requirements and that inmates cannot expect "the amenities, conveniences and services of a good hotel."

A federal judge recently ordered the county to allow Justice Department experts into the jail, partly because three inmates have committed suicide there since oral arguments began in the case in December. Officials from the agency toured the facility last week.

Unlike prisons, which house offenders who have been sentenced, jails hold mostly pretrial detainees—people who have not yet been convicted.

New inmates may be detoxing from alcohol or street drugs. They often arrive without medical records and whatever prescription medications they are taking. Some may be upset following confrontations with police. Things can turn bad in a hurry: A census of jail suicides between 2000 and 2002 found almost a quarter of the deaths happened within 48 hours of admission, and nearly half occurred in the first week of custody.

A proper intake screening is critical, experts say. "You can pick up the signs and when there is a problem, you do a mental health study and then you take the precautions that are necessary," said Fred Cohen, an Arizona attorney who is an expert in correctional law and a federal court monitor for Ohio’s juvenile detention centers. "Most of the signs and symptoms of the likelihood of suicide are either ignored or the guys don’t know."

In Erie County, a 2008 report by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care found that the intake screenings were inadequate and that there was no documentation proving that the correctional officers performing them had been trained. They collected medical information, but often failed to record it properly: "The receiving screening information is not filed in the health record in almost 40 percent of the patient records reviewed," the commission reported.

Some smaller jails, especially older ones, lack the design features and equipment to monitor inmates identified as having suicidal tendencies. At more modern jails, that means glass-walled cells allowing for continuous observation, and Velcro smocks and tear-proof blankets that can’t be torn up and turned into nooses.

Cells at the Erie County facility, by contrast, provided inmates with "multiple ways to facilitate committing suicide," according to the national commission’s assessment. The jail’s old-fashioned steel beds, window bars, grab bars and removable wall plates could be used by inmates to harm themselves.

Experts say smaller jails often have too little staff to provide inmates with adequate care—a situation likely to worsen as state and local governments deal with shrinking budgets.

In 2003, Erie County eliminated several health care positions at the jail, including the head nurse and almost half of the mental health staff. The next year, the holding center began admitting inmates who had been held in the Buffalo Police Department’s lockup, further straining the staff.

"Medical staff report that they are not always able to take vital signs, feel rushed and experience burnout," the national commission’s report found. "The facility does not have a chronic care program; treatment plans are not developed even for inmates with serious mental illness; and progress notes are often not entered in the medical record."

In Erie County and elsewhere, those monitoring jail inmates are typically sheriff’s deputies with limited training in recognizing the signs of mental illness – most of their training prepares them to be street cops.

"The sheriff’s office has two very different sets of responsibilities," says David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, who has litigated several constitutional claims against jails and prisons. "One is to be law enforcement patrol officers to the free world and one is to be correctional officers. … Often there is a preference among the deputies for patrol duty. To the extent that correctional work is thought of as a less desirable job function, it often gets short shrift in terms of training and resources. … My anecdotal experience it that seems to be more often a problem in smaller jails."

The Erie County sheriff’s deputies who work in the jail get just eight hours of training in suicide prevention screening, court documents show.

With six suicides since 2005 and many more attempts, the Erie County jail may yet emerge as a battleground for determining the minimum quality of care to which jail inmates are entitled.

It is facing heightened scrutiny from state regulators as well as the Justice Department. Earlier this month, the chairman of the New York State Commission of Correction, Thomas Beilein, ordered a comprehensive review of the facility’s suicide screening program and sent two investigators to inspect the jail. Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard cooperated with that inspection.

Howard and other Erie officials continue to battle the Justice Department, however, maintaining that federal overseers have overreached in their demands [3]. With the long-sought tour complete, DOJ lawyers say they will soon return to court to force the county’s hand.

"If our lawsuit is successful, the Department would ask the Court to remedy unconstitutional conditions at the Holding Center to ensure that the jail is safe and humane," a DOJ spokesperson said in an e-mail. "We are not seeking fines or monetary penalties, or remedies beyond the basic standards of care guaranteed by the Constitution."

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