Staggering into the morning from a two-week period of fevers, fatigue, and altered consciousness - punctuated by the grief of traumatized families - I found myself at the Freedom March for the Wrongfully Convicted on the State House lawn Saturday. It was organized by Camille Tilley, Courtney Bisbee's mom. As detailed by Stephen Lemons in the Phoenix New Times, Courtney was a school nurse and single mom when she was falsely accused of touching a teenaged boy and sentenced to 11 years in prison as a child molester. Sensationalized by the press, Courtney was convicted and condemned before she even went to trial.
Camille and Tom Tilley, 2008.
Now, six or seven years later, Courtney's still fighting for her child and her freedom from behind bars. The evidence exonerating her has been in the hands of the Maricopa County Attorney's office for over 4 years now. Andrew Thomas just sat on it. We're waiting to see if Rick Romley picks her file up before he goes. He had the courage to drop capital murder charges against Lisa Randall, the babysitter the county worked two years on prosecuting for the death of a child who was in her care, so we're hopeful.
Camille is an extraordinary woman. She sees the bigger picture - the contexts in which her family has been repeatedly victimized by agents of the state - and goes after every piece of it she can get her teeth into: not just abuses of prosecutorial discretion, but also minimum mandatory sentencing, police brutality, conditions of confinement and medical neglect in the prisons, racial profiling, and early release provisions for non-violent offenders. The devastating events of recent weeks, the rapid rise in the prisoner death toll, and the timing of the Freedom March this year brought a new constituency under her wing: the families of people prosecuted for the symptoms of their mental illnesses.
I've spent much of my adult life studying crime, punishment, and serious mental illness in an effort to keep my own loved one out of prison. I successfully convinced a handful of judges and prosecutors across the country to drop charges against him drawing on my research into the trans-institutionalization of the mentally ill, particularly those dually diagnosed with psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. I kept a few of my homeless clients out of jail that way, too. My experience has been that most people working in the criminal justice system agree that most of the seriously mentally ill whose lives are being chewed up there don't belong in jail or prison, they need housing, community support services and access to psychiatric hospitals. Instead, unfortunately, the seriously mentally ill are three times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized.
Shannon Palmer is one of the most stark examples of the damage done to a person's life by wrongful prosecution and incarceration that I've ever seen, but "justice" destroys innocent lives every day. According to Camille's research (based, I believe, on exonerations in death penalty cases), up to 10% of people in prison may be wrongfully convicted; factually innocent. If you look at prosecutions such as Shannon's, sentences of imprisonment for women like Lasasha Cherry, and Tony Lester's prosecution and sentence, then the number of people we have in prison who really shouldn't be there increases dramatically.
As of August 2010, the Arizona Department of Corrections estimates than about 9,362 of their 40,204 prisoners - about 25% - need on-going mental health treatment. Many of those individuals were too incompetent to stand trial or even to plead guilty when first arraigned - how can we then hold them fully culpable for criminal intent and send them to prison? They also estimate that 75% of offenders enter the system with major substance abuse issues. It's a serious and common error to believe that the mentally ill and addicted are getting the treatment they need in a safe environment when incarcerated. They are the most vulnerable to trauma, abuse and exploitation, which most have endured enough of already.
Most of us fail to appreciate the huge chunk we take out of people's lives when we criminalize and incarcerate them, and what lasting repercussions there are. We take it for granted that our system is just. American justice is not designed to expedite the exoneration and liberation of the innocent or even to equalize the punishment of the guilty. Once you plead guilty or are convicted, it's damn near impossible to get out through the appeals system, and no matter how innocent you are, it's all too easy to be violated on probation or parole - Arizona couldn't keep the prisons full otherwise.
There are people still trying to clear their names who have long since done their time - time they never should have had to do. Many have lost their careers, homes and families in the process of being branded a criminal. And some, like Shannon Palmer and Tony Lester, have lost their lives to our way of dealing with crime and doling out punishment.
What really astonished me - everyone, perhaps - at Saturday's Freedom March was how well one of our state legislators, Cecil Ash, articulated all that and more. Representative Ash is the chair of the House Study Committee on Sentencing Reform and Co-Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He not only spoke to the issues we've been dealing with, he sat and listened to every single story, in 100 degree heat, until 2:15 in the afternoon. He even took notes as families were talking about their experiences. And as far as I could tell, of all our state lawmakers, he was the only one to bother to come.
AZ Representative Cecil Ash,
Freedom March Phoenix, 2010.
You could tell by the way he talked about his letters from Arizona's prisoners that Representative Ash not only reads them, he's sincerely troubled by their predicaments and has been thinking about solutions. We incarcerate far too many non-violent offenders, and he wants to reduce time served before parole eligibility for some from 85% of their sentence to 65% of their sentence. He wants to rewrite some of the minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines to give judges more flexibility when they encounter defendants in exceptional circumstances.
Because of Brewer and Bill Macumber, Ash also wants a constitutional change to remove the power of clemency from the hands of the governor and invest it solely in a non-partisan board. And he wants to see prison reform so that people aren't needlessly suffering and dying while serving their time, regardless of their crime (or lack of one). Those are just a few of the changes he touched on wanting to raise the next legislative session.
While Representative Ash is our knight in shining armor, he wasn't the star of the show. The stars were the ordinary citizens who stood up to tell their stories and share their grief. Julie Acklin talked about her son Davon, sick in prison with Hep C and not getting treatment. She hopes his fight brings relief to all prisoners infected with HCV. We're planning to hit the lawn at CASS shelter this week to collect signature for the petition to the clemency board and educate people about Hep C.
Patti Jones brought nephew Tony Lester's daughter, just turning 1 that day, and told of his love for his family, the torment of his first psychotic break, his prosecution in the wake of a suicide attempt, and his death after being taken off his meds just a few weeks into a devastating 12-year prison term. Probably 20 of his relatives were there wearing t-shirts in his memory; they converted a table into a memorial with pictures and balloons. Patti pledged to organize with other families to push sentencing and prison reform to prevent what happened to Tony, trading numbers with Julie.
one of Tony Lester's little loved ones.
Other individuals and family members spoke eloquently and passionately about their disillusioning experiences with the criminal justice system in Arizona as well. There was considerable emphasis on mandatory minimum sentences and enhancements, abusive prosecution and the coercion involved in plea bargaining, and the non-incarceration consequences of being criminalized - including stigma, child custody issues, and the challenges that probation and parole stipulations present even to innocent people.
Allison Hicks ("Backspin") talked about her time in the Maricopa County Jail and her ordeal with wrongful prosecution, about which she has written and will soon have a movie. The Arizona Death Penalty Forum gave a brief presentation, and some of Jim Rix' books, Jingle Jangle, about AZ death row exoneree Ray Krone were on hand. Daniel Horne was with us in spirit - his books about Maricopa County corruption were distributed, and he sent an extensive handout for folks, which I hope to touch on in another post.
We also celebrated the success of our extensive efforts to get Andrew Thomas out of the Maricopa County Attorney's office and keep him from becoming AZ attorney general. He was huge obstruction of justice there. According to Camille, his office convicted over 200,000 people during his tenure. If 10% of them are innocent, that's a long trail of beaten families and damaged lives he left in his wake, with no sign of remorse or concern. We will be expecting more out of Mr. Montgomery - who is reportedly sympathetic towards people with mental illness - assuming he takes office after Romley's term expires. Hopefully Arizonans will never again have to tolerate someone like Andrew Thomas in a position of such power again.
Thanks, Camille, for all you did to put together the day - and for all you do year round for prisoners and their families.
And thank you, Representative Ash. You give us hope that our government is not completely lost, and that our loved ones have not been permanently discarded.
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. email@example.com
until all are free -
MARGARET J PLEWS (June 1, 2015)
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