Arizona's mass incarceration crisis has devastating effects on individuals and their families. Many formerly incarcerated people continue to be punished for their crimes long after they have left prison, as they struggle to integrate back into society. These are a few of their stories. We want to hear yours.
The ACLU of Arizona has verified this anonymous letter was written inside Perryville Women’s Prison. The letter was written in honor of Marcia Powell, who died inside Perryville ten years ago this month.
Ten years ago, a woman sat in a cage in temperatures well over 100 degrees for hour after hour after hour until she finally succumbed to the heat and died. Many people had a chance to help her, but they all ignored her pleas. Her name was Marcia Powell. As we approach the ten year anniversary of her needless death, those of us who remain caged are reminded of how little has changed when it comes to the way that the Arizona Department of Corrections treats its prisoners.
Last year at this time, several hundred women living on Perryville’s Santa Cruz unit organized a celebration of Marcia Powell’s life to remind those working here that we had not forgotten what happened to her. We made signs that read “We won’t forget Marcia Powell.” We gathered in a large circle in the center of our main yard as shift change approached. When the second shift officers began to arrive, we held up our signs and went absolutely quiet. We remained in silent protest for approximately ten minutes as the second shift officers walked to their posts and the first shift officers left their posts for the day, each officer having to walk past us. Afterward, those who had known Marcia personally shared stories about her. The rest of us reminded each other of the importance of caring for one another in a place where it is clear we will not be cared for by the staff.
Many of the officers working on Lumley unit that day ten years ago who stood by and let Marcia die in that cage are still working for the Arizona Department of Corrections. Some of them have been promoted. None of them have been prosecuted. And right in the center of the Santa Cruz main yard, where just last year we gathered to remember Marcia, a new cage now stands. Just in time for summer, the ADOC has erected a new cage in which closed custody prisoners will be placed for “main yard rec.”
While the men’s prisons tend to garner more media attention due to their dangerousness(the lock situation at Lewis prison being the most recent), the women of Perryville are in danger as well. We are in danger of dying in a cage like Marcia Powell did ten years before. We are in danger of dying from injuries and diseases that go undiagnosed and untreated due to the substandard medical care. The dangers we all face as prisoners of the Arizona Department of Corrections, whether they be from fire due to doors that can only be unlocked with a key (we have these here on Santa Cruz too) or from cancer left to spread unchecked, all stem from the same root cause: the failure on the part of the staff to recognize that those of us living in prisons are human beings. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence.
I’m sure the Arizona Department of Corrections in general, and Director Charles Ryan in particular, would like to sweep what happened to Marcia Powell under the rug with the rest of their dirty laundry (it’s getting pretty full under there). But as we approach the ten year anniversary of Marcia’s death, the women of Perryville prison would like to remind the world that we are people’s daughters, mothers, and sisters. Like Marcia Powell, we are human beings. And we will not be forgotten.
One of more than four thousand human beings living in Perryville women’s prison
#ReFraming Justice is a story series created in collaboration with American Friends Service Committee-Arizona to highlight how reforming Arizona’s harsh approach to sentencing will help reunite families and restore hope to incarcerated people.
Arizona is one of only a few states in which all people in prison are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence regardless of the severity of the crime or the positive progress they’ve made in prison. People are given no opportunity to earn time off their sentences for good behavior or taking part in rehabilitative programs like drug treatment or education classes. This contributes to Arizona having the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation. Our outdated sentencing laws are costly, ineffective, and do not make us any safer. People in Arizona prisons are being punished more harshly than people convicted of the same crimes in other states. Arizona lawmakers have a chance this legislative session to fix the problem by passing HB 2270. HB 2270 would allow people in prison to earn early release credits giving them an incentive to take part in programs that will help them be successful as they reintegrate into society. It’s time to bring Arizona in line with the rest of the country and sensibly reform our extreme sentencing laws to allow people who pose little risk to society to earn time off their sentences so they can be reunited with their families sooner. It’s time to pass HB 2270!
Dawn Curtis is a mother of three who served five years in prison. While she was incarcerated, her children began struggling with addiction. Despite the progress Dawn made, she had no opportunity to earn early release. Dawn supports #JustSentencingAZ because it would allow mothers like her to earn a reduced sentence and make it back home to their kids sooner.
Virginia Mireles served more than six years in prison for a petty property offense. Virginia was given no opportunity to earn an earlier release. She believes if she would have had this opportunity, she might have been able to stop her son from developing an addiction to drugs. Virginia supports HB 2270 because it would give people in prison a goal to work toward in order to better themselves during their incarceration.
Carmen and Nicole Hreniuc are waiting for their son and brother, Tommy, to come home from prison. Carmen says her family never expected Tommy to receive such a long sentence. Tommy takes all of the educational classes he can in prison and is working, but because of Arizona’s extreme sentencing laws, he has no opportunity for an earlier release. Carmen and Nicole support #HB2270 because it would give Tommy and other people in prison an incentive to start the road to rehabilitation so they can be reunited with their families sooner.
Shawna Roman was a mother of two when she entered the criminal justice system for the first time. Shawna said she hit a roadblock in her life after her husband abandoned her. “I became a very broken person,” Shawna said. While in prison, Shawna was denied transport to attend a custody hearing. Because she did not show up to the hearing, she lost her rights to contact her children by default. “He doesn’t even remember me,” Shawna said of her youngest son. “My oldest one tells him about me. He plans on looking for me when he’s old enough to do so.” The first time Shawna was released from jail, she became homeless. A lack of adequate services to help get her back on her feet led to two more arrests. Shawna is now focused on improving her life in hope of one day seeing her children again. She wants to reform Arizona’s criminal justice system so more rehabilitative services are available for people who need help during difficult times in their lives.
Eugene Glover spent 14 years in an Arizona prison where he believes he did not receive proper medical care. As a diabetic, Eugene felt as though the Arizona Department of Corrections did not take his medical needs seriously. Eugene believes the lack of effective reentry programs in Arizona prisons leads to a high rate of people being sent back to prison. Upon release, his lack of knowledge of basic technology put him at a disadvantage as he searched for work. “I go to apply for a job, the job tells me I have to go online. Online? What are you talking about online? I have no idea of this new technology,” Eugene said. Eugene is now employed and is learning how to use a smartphone. He is also back in touch with his family after losing contact with them for years. “As far as my freedom goes, not being locked up, and having my family back in my life, that’s the most wonderful gift I could ever ask for,” he said.
Khalil Rushdan grew up in a family of eight kids. He started selling drugs at 13 out of desperation to help his family make ends meet. At 22, he was convicted of a murder he did not commit. The charges stemmed from a drug deal in Pima County. He was the middleman and had no idea the deal, which he did not directly participate in, would end in a murder. When the Pima County Attorney was unable to convict the real killer, prosecutors went after Khalil. Khalil spent 15 years in prison before a judge overturned his conviction on evidence of vindictive prosecution. Although he is now free, Khalil never got the chance to watch his daughter grow up and missed precious moments with his mother, who died shortly after his release. “Those are things I can’t get back,” Khalil said. He now works for the ACLU of Arizona’s Campaign for Smart Justice and is a mentor to other formerly incarcerated individuals. “Upon my release and me being grateful to have another opportunity, I was like, ‘I have to give back,'” he said.
Vonda Bennett was trapped in jail for eleven months although she was legally presumed to be innocent. Vonda could not afford the bond placed on her for a drug crime. “I have 7 children. I had a business and a home. I wasn’t a flight risk,” Vonda said. Vonda believes if she would have been able to bail out pre-trial, her situation would have turned out differently.
“I would have been able to explain to my kids what was happening. I would have been able to make sure my family had proper care while I was gone. I would have been able to start working on my sobriety so I could cope better in prison,” Vonda said.
Vonda said she was unable to see her kids from the moment she was arrested to the moment she ended her five-year mandatory minimum sentence. She believes if she could have afforded her bail, she would have a better relationship with her kids today.
“I didn’t even get a chance to explain to my children about my illness of addiction to where they would understand it,” Vonda said. “These bails are too high. Families are getting ripped apart, and the devastation falls on the children.”