PHOENIX (AP) — The director of Arizona state prisons has suspended the use of unshaded outdoor holding cells in the wake of an inmate’s death.
Authorities said Friday that crews will retrofit the cells to provide shade and water.
The move follows the death last week of 48-year-old Marcia Powell. She was left in an unshaded enclosure for nearly four hours May 19 as temperatures topped 100 degrees.
Corrections Director Charles Ryan says Powell, who was serving a sentence for prostitution, should not have been left in the cell for so long. He placed three officers on administrative leave pending a criminal investigation.
The outdoor cells hold inmates temporarily when they are being transferred from one area in a prison to another.
Inmate made impact in death
Today at noon, a group of people will gather to pay tribute to a woman they never met. Her name is Marcia Powell.
I wonder what they will say. Will they talk about the teenage girl who ran away from home? The woman who lived on the streets of Phoenix, doing the only thing she knew to survive? Will they talk about the drug addict and prostitute who long ago gave up on herself? Or will they talk about us and the systems we set in place that couldn’t – or wouldn’t – help her?
Until now, of course. Now that she’s dead.
Powell died last week in a metal cage in the middle of a dirt yard in the middle of a state prison.
Her chief crime was that she was mentally ill.
Corrections Director Charles Ryan called Powell’s death “a tragedy and a failure” and announced plans to get to the bottom of what happened. “The investigation, ” he announced, “will determine whether there was negligence and tell us how to remedy our failures.”
That will be some investigation, to tell us how to remedy all the ways that we failed Marcia Powell.
According to court and police records, Powell never knew her biological parents. At age 3, she was put into foster care and eventually adopted by a California couple who gave her their last name. When she was 14 or 15, she ran away “due to a poor family environment, ” according to one of the many public defenders she would have over her lifetime.
For most of her life, she lived on the streets, doing drugs and turning tricks. Oh, she did find work from time to time, but those jobs didn’t last. She was fired from every one. She bounced from street to jail to prison and back again, at times getting arrested within hours of her release. In all, she racked up two dozen or more felony convictions and 30 misdemeanors – most of them for prostitution or drug possession.
As far back as 1993, authorities recognized that she suffered from mental illness, but she didn’t want help, and we gave her exactly what she requested. Recent court records indicate she was considered seriously mentally ill and was a patient of Magellan Health Services, the for-profit company we pay to care for the Marcia Powells among us.
In July, she approached an undercover cop at 16th and Washington Streets and offered to perform oral sex in exchange for $20 worth of crack. Her attorney pointed out the obvious, that another stint in prison would lead only to still more stints in prison, that it wasn’t the answer to reforming Powell or protecting the public.
“Marcia is guilty of being a drug addict and a prostitute, two labels that are usually attached to individuals that have no support system, have been in and out of jail/prison and have given up on their own lives,” Deputy Public Defender Nathan Foundas wrote. “This is Marcia Powell. Marcia understandably coped with her lifestyle by using drugs as a form of self-medication. Now we are sending her back to prison for working at the only job that she has known, been able to hang onto and the only way she has been able to support herself.”
On July 31, Powell was sentenced to 2 1/4 years in prison. Last week, she was put into an outdoor cage in the Perryville prison and left to slowly roast for nearly four hours.
There are a lot of questions about how Marcia Powell lived and why she died. About why prison seems our only answer for the mentally ill. About why we would put anybody – mentally ill or not – outside in an unshaded cage on an Arizona summer afternoon.
About whether we would have even cared about Marcia Powell had she not died an ugly, awful death. And whether we care enough about the other Marcias out there on the street to question what’s being done to help the mentally ill among us.
Marcia Joanne Powell died alone. It appears she had no family, no friends. A public memorial service will be held at noon today at Encanto Community Church, 2710 N. Seventh Avenue.
“It’s an opportunity for the community to gather,” the Rev. Liana Rowe told me. “To acknowledge that we’ve failed people who live in our community, the homeless on the streets, the mentally ill, drug addicted . . . and to recognize that we’re called to do better.”
During today’s service, a collection will be taken to raise money to cremate Powell’s body, so that her ashes may be interred in the columbarium at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ.
It will be left to Donna Leone Hamm of Middle Ground Prison Reform to give the eulogy. “It’s important for her life to not have been in vain and especially her death,” Hamm said. “This is going to result in some changes for prisoners.”
It already has. On Friday, the Department of Corrections suspended the use of outdoor cages. From now on, no prisoner will be caged outside unless there is shade and water.
Marcia Powell may not have done much in her life. In death, however, she finally matters.
Source: robertsblog. azcentral. com