Nel's New Day

February 16, 2013

Arizona Female Prisoners Need Help

Arizona has gotten such a bad rap—deservedly—that I was delighted to see something positive about the state. Having lived in Arizona for three decades, I read with interest the letter to the editor in the most recent issue of Ms. (Winter 2013) from Sue Ellen Allen, convicted of securities fraud at the age of 57, who was allowed to teach at the Perryville women’s prison while she was incarcerated and battling breast cancer. Named for Gina Panetta, who died of myeloid leukemia soon after her release from prison, Allen’s program, Gina’s Team, uses the motto “Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention.”

My positive feelings about Arizona soon dissipated after a bit of research on women in Arizona’s jails and prisons. The high number of prisoners in this country is well-known: a 2010 report stated that the U.S. has a greater share of its population behind bars than any other country in the world. In 2008, the number was 753 per 100,000 people, 240 percent higher than in 1980. Over 60 percent of these people are non-violent offenders, and non-violent drug offenders account for one-fourth of all prisoners, up from less than 10 percent in 1980.

For women in Arizona the story is much worse. The number of women admitted to Arizona state prisons increased 60 percent in the six years between 2004 and 2010, twice the rate of increase for male admissions. Arizona is also home to the only female chain gang in the entire country, thanks to the infamous Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was just re-elected after the Hispanic vote was suppressed. According to a 2012 law, only pregnant women cannot be restrained in shackles—but just during transportation, labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery.

Women in chains work in 104-degree heat.

Women in chains work in 104-degree heat.

Health care is almost non-existent for women in Arizona prisons. Allen chronicles the indifference toward her breast cancer, already diagnosed when she was convicted and sentenced. She was fortunate: other women died because they had no health care for lumps in their breast or their care came too late.

A year ago, the state agreed to investigate complaints from inmates to postpone a lawsuit. Proper medical care could have prevented inmates’ suffering as well as their loss of sight, amputations, and severe disfigurement. The prison suicide rate in Arizona is also more than twice the national average, perhaps resulting from the lack of health care. Corrections officials don’t admit the poor health care, but they said that it was harder to fill medical staff vacancies because of pending plants to privatize prison health care and rule changes that cut payment to these outside contractors.

Corrections spent $5.3 million less on full-time health-care staff salaries during the 2011 fiscal year than two years earlier, a 13.5 percent drop. Many contract providers such as Carondelet Health Network stopped doing business with Corrections, saying the reimbursement rates were too low. The expenditure per inmate was 27 percent less in the fiscal year ending in June 2011 than two years earlier.

One form of prisoner discipline killed at least one woman. The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) has over 600 outdoor cages where prisoners are confined or held while they wait for medical appointments, work, education, or treatment programs. On May 20, 2009, when the temperature was 107, Marcia Powell, a mentally ill 48-year-old woman imprisoned for prostitution, was put into one of these unshaded cages at Perryville.

Despite prison policy that “water shall be continuously available” to caged prisoners and that they should be in the cage for “no more than two consecutive hours,” guards continually denied her water and kept her in the cage for four hours. After Powell collapsed of heat stroke, she was sent to West Valley Hospital until she was taken off life support a few hours later. An autopsy report showed she had first- and second-degree burns on her face and body and a core body temperature of 108 degrees Fahrenheit.

No one was charged with her death, and some of the fired employees were reinstated. The temporary suspension on caging prisoners was lifted after media attention faded.

At the end of January, the Arizona Department of Corrections changed its healthcare provider from Wexford Heath Sources to Corizon of Brentwood (TN) after ADC threatened Wexford with a $10,000 fine for not fixing staffing problems, properly distributing medication, and communicating problems to the state. One example was a “nurse” who exposed 103 inmates to Hepatitis C because she continued to use the same needle for insulin.

Arizona officials knew that Wexford had a bad record in other places when they hired the company. Some people believe that Corizon will do no better. Now the largest prison health provider in the United States, responsible for over 400 correctional facilities with 400,000 prisoners in 31 states, Corizon has a long record of malfeasance, including the charge that its care “amounts to cruel and unusual punishment,” according to a federal, court-ordered report.

Noted privatization expert Alex Friedmann, Associate Editor of Prison Legal News, wrote, “If you take all the bad parts of the HMO [Health Maintenance Organization] and put it in a monopoly situation, then you have the private prison medical care industry…But prisoners can’t go to another clinic, can’t pick a plan.”

If you purchase produce at Wal-Mart, because it’s cheap, think of the women incarcerated at Perryville Prison. Arizona fines employees who knowingly hire undocumented workers so farmers get their laborers from ADC instead.  For almost 20 years, in compliance with state law, companies such as Martori Farms, Wal-Mart’s vendor, pay Perryville women two dollars per hour, not including travel time. They have no choice: state law mandates that all able-bodied inmates work.

A woman prisoner who worked at Martori Farms described the conditions:

 “We work eight hours regardless of conditions …. We work in the fields hoeing weeds and thinning plants … Currently we are forced to work in the blazing sun for eight hours. We run out of water several times a day. We ran out of sunscreen several times a week. They don’t check medical backgrounds or ages before they pull women for these jobs. Many of us cannot do it! If we stop working and sit on the bus or even just take an unauthorized break we get a MAJOR ticket which takes away our ‘good time’!!! We are told we get ‘two’ 15 minute breaks and a half hour lunch like a normal job but it’s more like 10 minutes and 20 minutes. They constantly yell at us we are too slow and to speed up because we are costing $150 an acre in labor and that’s not acceptable… In addition, the prison has sent women to work on the farms regardless of their medical conditions.”

One woman suffered such severe chest pains while working that she was sent to West Valley Hospital where an emergency room doctor ordered that she be exempt from the farm work crew and any other physical exertion for three to four days. Back at the prison, the nurse told the woman that they would not honor the doctor’s order and then ordered her back to work. Another woman on oxygen in a wheelchair was issued a disciplinary ticket for not working.

The number of prisoners in Arizona will continue to grow because state legislators guaranteed that all the prison beds in the for-profit prisons, which cost more than the state-operated ones, will be full. One way to do that is to provide immigrant detainees, a rich source of prisoners in Arizona. Nearly half of the 400,000 detainees are in for-profit prisoners, and Arizona isn’t always careful to make sure that these people are not U.S. citizens.

Briseira Torres of Glendale (AZ) was arrested on three counts of forgery for using her real name and real identification. She was kept in jail for over four months without bail, losing her house and car. Her 14-year-old daughter had to live with friends and could see her mother only in jail. Torres was finally released after two attorneys provided a statement from Arizona’s Office of Vital Records, proving her birth certificate was legitimate. In court, the detective continued to claim that her birth certificate had been canceled, and Torres was left without an official ID. Three months later the state still tried to cancel her legal birth certificate, despite the fact that she was born at home in Avondale (AZ) with witnesses.

This is life for women prisoners in Arizona.

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