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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AZ Prison Watch BLOG POSTS:

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Solitary hell in Arizona: cruel, inhumane, and illegal.


Thanks to our friends at Amnesty International for flying out last summer - Chuck Ryan wouldn't let them in to see the prisoners, but he couldn't keep them away from the rest of us... 
and thanks again to Bob Ortega, who refuses to let up shining the light in the darkness of our state prisons.

Amnesty International accuses Arizona of abuse in prisons

Arizona's state prisons overuse solitary confinement in cruel, inhumane and illegal ways, particularly for mentally ill prisoners and juveniles as young as 14, the human-rights group Amnesty International charges in a report to be released today.

According to the report, which is to be delivered to the governor and state lawmakers, Arizona prisons use solitary confinement as a punishment more than most other states or the federal government.

document Report | document ACLU lawsuit | Suit: Inmates denied adequate care

The group found that some inmates are held in isolation for months and sometimes years, and it called on the state to use the practice only as a last resort and only for a short duration.

In addition, it asked that the practice not be used against children or people who are mentally ill or have behavioral disabilities. The group also called on state officials to improve conditions for prisoners in solitary confinement and to act to reduce the high number of suicides in Arizona's prisons.

Arizona Department of Corrections officials said they had not read the report Monday and were unable to comment.

According to the DOC, 3,130 inmates, or 8 percent of the state prison population, were being held in the highest-security, maximum-custody units as of Friday, and most were confined alone.

Although maximum-security inmates include those who are violent and may represent a threat to other inmates or staff, Amnesty noted that Arizona's own figures show that 35 percent of inmates in maximum security were committed for non-violent crimes.

Amnesty International's report cited sources who said prisoners are regularly assigned to maximum security for relatively minor rule violations or disruptive behavior, often because they have mental-health or behavioral problems.

The report noted cases of Arizona inmates who have been in solitary confinement continuously for 15 years. Amnesty said that various international human-rights treaties and experts, including the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Torture, have called on states to limit the use of solitary confinement to exceptional circumstances, for short periods and to prohibit solitary confinement of children 17 and younger.

Amnesty's report found that 14 children 14 to 17 years old had been held in maximum custody at the Rincon unit in the Tucson state prison, under conditions similar to those of adults: 22 to 24 hours a day in their cells, limited exercise alone in a small cage and with no recreational activities.

Because children and adolescents are not fully developed physically and emotionally, they are less equipped to tolerate the effects of isolation, according to studies cited in the report.

Some charges in the Amnesty report echo those raised in a federal lawsuit filed by the Americal Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Law Office last month, alleging that Arizona's Department of Corrections doesn't provide adequate mental-health and medical care.

The state has not responded to that suit, and the Corrections spokesman said the department wouldn't respond to any parts of the Amnesty report that related to that litigation.

Last July, Corrections officials declined to meet with Amnesty representatives from London who were visiting Arizona, nor allow them to visit the Eyman state prison, which houses about 1,950 maximum-security inmates.

A spokesman said Corrections Director Charles Ryan had other commitments. In a letter to Amnesty, Ryan cited security concerns in declining their visit request. On that same tour, Texas and California correctional officials met with Amnesty's representatives, and California permitted them to visit maximum-custody units.
About 1 percent of federal inmates are held in conditions similar to Arizona's, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The U.S. holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other country in the world, Amnesty said.
With more than 8 percent of Arizona's inmate population in maximum security and a large portion of those inmates in solitary, the state's rate puts it at the high end among U.S. states, most of which hold from 1 to 3 percent of their inmates in some form of solitary confinement.

Most Arizona maximum-security inmates are isolated in "special management units," windowless cells that, contrary to the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners, have no direct access to sunlight or fresh air, and have lighting that is dimmed at night but left on 24 hours a day, the Amnesty report said.

Inmates in SMU units are not allowed to work. They typically receive two daily meals in their cells, have no contact with other inmates and are allowed out of their cell no more than three times a week for two hours for exercise and showers, in many cases in a windowless room with nothing except tall walls and a mesh over the roof.

Amnesty cited allegations that the cells are no longer steam-cleaned between inmates, so that food, urine and feces are stuck on the walls and food slots.

Both Amnesty International and inmates contacted by The Arizona Republic expressed concern that the conditions in solitary may contribute to Arizona's high prison suicide rate, which was double the national average last fiscal year. Seven of the 10 most recent suicides in state prisons were by inmates being held in solitary in maximum-security cells, according to Corrections death reports.

While many states, including California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Mississippi and Wisconsin, bar placing seriously mentally ill inmates in solitary because the social isolation and sensory deprivation can lead to further psychological deterioration, Arizona does not.

Amnesty cited reports that serious mental illnesses often go undiagnosed in Arizona prisons because of a lack of mental-health staff and inadequate screening and monitoring.

Amnesty reported that mental-health staff don't have weekly rounds, visiting maximum-security inmates only when there's a crisis, and consulting with them at their cell door.

It noted the ACLU lawsuit, which alleges that prisoners in solitary wait an average of six to eight months to see a psychologist, with some waiting more than a year. One prisoner diagnosed with serious mental illness spent two years in solitary without seeing a psychiatrist despite repeated requests and referrals by staff, according to the suit.

Amnesty noted 43 suicides listed by Corrections from October 2005 to April 2011 and said that of the 37 cases in which it was able to collect information, 22 -- or 60 percent -- took place in maximum-custody solitary units. There have been at least eight more suicides since April 2011 and 16 other deaths that the department described only as "under investigation."

In letters to The Republic, inmates have raised concerns similar to those in the Amnesty report. "While on suicide watch here at SMU-1, the lights stay on all night and make it impossible to sleep -- all day, all night," wrote Dustin Brislan, an inmate with a serious mental illness in solitary confinement at Eyman.

"Lack of contact, of seeing the outside, seeing any bit of sunlight, smelling fresh air, all of that has increased my mental illness. I'm only allowed recreation every other day, where I'm put in a windowless cell off area."

The Eyman prison is the only one in Arizona not accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which requires that prisoners being held in solitary confinement have at least weekly contact with mental-health staff.

By contrast, North Dakota's prison system hasn't had a suicide in 12 years, and none in maximum security since the early 1990s, according to that state's director of corrections and rehabilitation, Leann Bertsch.

"People with mental illness do very poorly in isolation," she said, "so we work with them intensively because we don't want them staying in isolation for long."

That means constant supervision, daily visits with behavioral counselors, and other interventions by trained staff as part of a comprehensive suicide-prevention policy.

The Amnesty report also questioned why Arizona's Corrections Department requires all prisoners sentenced to life to spend at least their first two years in solitary confinement, regardless of whether they pose a threat to other inmates or guards.

"There appears to be no valid reason," the report said. American Bar Association standards call for prisoners to be kept in solitary more than a year only if the prisoner poses a "continuing, serious threat."

Many states have reduced solitary confinement in recent years, often under court order, only to find that their costs drop and prisoners behave better when they aren't in solitary.

Mississippi cut the use of solitary by 80 percent in 2007, and Maine by 60 percent last year.

Amnesty International said Arizona should:

• Reduce the number of prisoners in isolation to only those who are a serious and continuing threat.

• Improve overall conditions, provide more out-of-cell time, better exercise facilities, meaningful education and rehabilitation programs.

• Introduce measures to allow some group interactions and association to benefit inmates' mental health and provide incentives for better behavior.

• Remove all serious mentally ill prisoners from solitary and prohibit them from being placed in solitary.

• Improve mental-health monitoring; take steps to reduce suicide, including more humane conditions in suicide watch cells; and prohibit solitary confinement of prisoners under 18.

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