NO HUMAN INVOLVED
In 2014 I was interviewed by Tits and Sass about the process of making NO HUMAN INVOLVED. This week in the wake of the pardoning of Joe Arpaio I was approached by the Tits and Sass team to provide an update about how abuses in Maricopa County jails intersect with the prison system.
Here is the information from the update, the complete piece can now be viewed here.
How did Sheriff Arpaio’s inmate human rights abuses contribute to Marcia Powell’s death?
Marcia Powell died in Perryville Prison, a state facility in a town called Goodyear outside of Phoenix. State prisons are overseen by the Arizona Department of Corrections so there is no direct relationship to the Phoenix/Maricopa county jail facilities that Joe Arpaio ran for six terms until he was voted out of office in 2016. The person who [was] overseeing the prison where Marcia Powell died was Charles Ryan, who is still currently the director of Arizona Department of Corrections. (For more about the difference between County Jail and Prisons in AZ, see this.)
Even though the people in charge of the jails and prisons are different, the abuses in places like Tent City—a collection of tents set up under the direction of Joe Arpaio in a dusty lot next to Maricopa County Jail—are part of a continuum of what happens in the prison industrial complex. The tents in Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail are reported to heat up to over 150 degrees. Placing people in intensely hot environments like this is similar to what we know killed Marcia Powell.
In 2012 I visited Tent City, I saw inmates in the tents, and it is as bad as you could imagine it would be. Joe Arpaio wanted the public to see how badly he treated prisoners because he was proud of what he had done. Maricopa County Jails have been cited numerous times for violating health and rights for these and other reasons. After she was arrested, Marcia Powell spent time in a Maricopa County Jail in 2008 while awaiting court hearings and before being transferred to Perryville Prison. In No Human Involved, a woman who saw Marcia enter Perryville Prison described her as being “all tore up” because she was coming in from County Jail and explains that everyone who comes in from County is that way due to the conditions there.
In the years following Marcia Powell’s death in 2009, the ACLU AZ filed a lawsuit against Charles Ryan, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, regarding failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care to inmates. Many of the advocates I met during filming No Human Involved contributed to this suit—it was filed in 2012—and I had the chance to learn a lot about the situation, reading over the documentation of the incredible suffering people have endured while in prison in Arizona.
In 2015, Arizona Department of Corrections settled the suit, committing to provide health care and take 100 other measures to rectify the issues. But Ryan has not done so. In July this year, a federal judge compared Charles Ryan to “the recently convicted Sheriff in our county who thought he could do as he wished” because he has challenged the legitimacy of orders to comply with the settlement. Once again the theme of just how hot it can get in Arizona was noted by the federal judge who--it was reported in the Phoenix New Times-–visited a “prison health clinic that was so hot that his hearing aid was destroyed from sweating so much.” The judge found this worrying because “inmates who are taking medications that make them extremely sensitive to heat have to use that same clinic.” Marcia Powell was also taking medications that made her more sensitive to the heat.
During your work on the documentary, what did you discover about how other sex workers suffered from Arpaio’s violations of inmate human rights?
What I learned is that each year hundreds of sex workers and people convicted of prostitution-related offenses are subjected to the rights violating and unconstitutional conditions of Maricopa County Jails. And until 2016, they were serving under Joe Arpaio’s reign. In Phoenix, approximately 1000 people per year are arrested for prostitution, though in some years it can be nearly double that figure. Raids–such as [those for] the now defunct Project ROSE–can result in more than 100 people being arrested at a time over a weekend. Many of the people arrested for prostitution await their court date while locked up in Maricopa County Jails and then serve their sentence in Maricopa County Jails. Jail time for prostitution offenses is written into the law in Arizona, 15 days for the first offense, 30 for the second, 60 for the third and after that people are charged with a class 5 felony and must spend 180 or more [days] in prison. That is why Marcia was serving more than 2 years time, because she had 5 prior offenses so she received the standard mandatory sentence as per this sentencing chart.
It is very hard to fight prostitution charges in Arizona and very few people have the resources to do so. During Monica Jones’ initial court appearances after she was arrested for “manifestation of the intent to prostitute,” we got some indication of just how pervasive it is to route people through the system and into jail. At her initial court appearance in 2013, Monica indicated that she intended to plead “not guilty” and this was such a surprise to the court functionaries that they had to delay her appearance and send her to another courtroom. The reason? The primary courtroom set up for people charged with prostitution related offences is set up purely for people to plead “guilty.”
What sort of conclusions do you make from Marcia Powell’s death and the blood on Sheriff Arpaio’s hands about the necessary connection between the sex worker rights movement and prison reform/prison abolition?
I keep thinking back to something Peggy Plews (of Arizona Prison Watch) said to me back in 2012 on election night when people were hoping that Joe Arpaio would be voted out. She noted that even if Joe Arpaio were removed from his office that the system would continue with another Sheriff. It was such a good reminder of keeping focused on the overall picture of what needs to change and to not be distracted by a short term “win.”
Based on what I’ve read, Joe Arpaio is similar to Trump in terms of courting media attention in spectacular ways and trumpeting [his] participation in human rights abuses to get that attention. It would be very easy to say that now that Arpaio is no longer there, things must be better because he built himself up in such a grotesque manner to make himself seem all powerful and essential to the system.
Yes, I am relieved that Arpaio is no longer in office, but day to day the system continues on without Arpaio because no one person is essential to it. The Phoenix vice squad is still out there arresting sex workers, the court system still operates exactly as it did when Marcia Powell received the mandatory sentence of 2.25 years, and Arizona systems of incarceration are just as dehumanizing and dangerous as they ever were. As sex worker rights advocates, we need to hold the totality of what needs to change in our minds–and activists I admire such as Peggy Plews, Monica Jones, and Kini Seawright do that–at the same time as concretely taking the system apart one bit at a time.