Activist Spotlight Interview: PJ Starr On Marcia Powell And Prison Abolition

by Caty Simon on September 16, 2014 · 4 comments

in Activism, Interviews

Mother's Day protest at an Arizona prison (Photo by PJ Starr)

Mother’s Day protest at an Arizona prison. (Photo by PJ Starr)

I spoke to sex worker rights film maker and photographer PJ Starr about her upcoming documentary film, NO HUMAN INVOLVED, on the death of Arizona street worker Marcia Powell through prison brutality. The interview that follows is a composite of a week of e-mails between the two of us.

Who was Marcia Powell? 

Marcia Powell was arrested in 2008 for solicitation of prostitution and was sentenced to 27 months in Perryville Prison, a women’s prison located in Goodyear just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. In 2009, while she was serving that sentence, she was left in a cage in the sun during the heat of the day for hours. She collapsed and some hours later died in a hospital in Goodyear when the Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections had her removed from life support.

Marcia should not be and cannot be defined solely by her death. Marcia Powell was a parent; she named one of her children—her daughter—Eureka. A former partner described her as “so beautiful she would stop traffic.” Marcia loved coffee, everyone who knew her in prison mentions that. She had experienced mental health issues, that was clear, but as one of her friends from Perryville said to me during an interview, “she had good sense.” On one hand, there is the public figure that Marcia came to be after her death, but, as is always the case, her story is much more nuanced than what we can contain in one news story. At points in her life she did not even choose to be “Marcia Powell.” She sometimes used another name, but in prison, her ID name Marcia Powell came to be how she was known and is now remembered.

How did you get the idea to make a film about her death?

Firstly, in 2009, when Marcia Powell died, my friend Cris Sardina (who is now the co-coordinator of Desiree Alliance, but then was involved with the Women’s Re-Entry Network in Arizona) sent me an e-mail telling me about what had happened. Cris’ message put the story in my mind and I continued to think about it for a long time. Secondly, I was given a space to be part of the Filmmakers’ Collaborative at the Maysles Institute in 2010 and the collaborative focused on writing a treatment for documentary film. I proposed three ideas to the other filmmakers and every person in the collaborative advocated for me to make a film about Marcia Powell. That was a wake up moment for me to think that other people outside of the movement for sex worker rights would be so affected by the story, so I prioritized the film. I thank the other filmmakers at Maysles for helping me see what was important for me to pursue.

Who is the intended audience for your film? What would you like viewers to learn about the prison system and survival sex work by watching No Human Involved?

I am very proud that we have the genre of representation that has been carefully encouraged by people like the incomparable Carol Leigh, and I am always keen to make films that speak to the sex worker community, but I have been working on this film with the aim of having a broader audience as well. I am aiming for the film to also resonate with people who may care about human rights or women’s issues already, but who really have not yet had information about what I am starting to think of as a conveyor belt that moves people along via arrests for prostitution, or related issues like “trespassing” of “camping” in urban areas, to the court where they have no choice but to plead guilty, to the prisons where they are at the mercy of a brutal system of incarceration.

In the promo video for your film, Peggy Plews laments, “How can sixteen people pass by a human being in a cage—defecating over herself and pleading to be let out—and do nothing?” Where does this systemic brutality come from? How can we combat it?

Yes, how can so many people ignore someone who is begging for water? Incarceration relies on categorization, dehumanization and a hierarchy of command that distances each person from responsibility. Part of the problem that day was that Marcia was not seen as a person in a cage by the officers walking by. She was viewed as an irritant, a thing to be ignored until the sounds (i.e., her pleas) stopped. But no matter how responsible those individuals are for what happened, there is equal responsibility held by the people who have designed the current approach within the Arizona Department of Corrections. People who institute and maintain systems of brutality have a vested interest in erasing its history so that it seems that the the system is “normal” and permanent, and that there is no way to create change.

The first step to being involved in change is then to learn how the system was set up so we can dismantle it. One excellent resource is the book Sunbelt Justice by Mona Lynch, which explains how Arizona’s carceral policies developed and the role that their approach plays in America’s current system of mass incarceration. Another step in combating brutality is to be in solidarity with prisoners, because wherever there is injustice there is always resistance. And perhaps one more element to remember is to keep an open mind about who can be part of standing up against the abuses as allies. There are people who have worked in Corrections who challenge the dehumanization and who have questioned what happened to Marcia Powell. The system is not as invulnerable to criticism from within as the leadership might want the public to think.

What sort of collaboration between the sex workers’ rights movement and prison abolitionists would you like to see?

I have long been influenced by the perspectives of folks like Che Gossett, an author and activist, who had a lot of input into infusing a prison abolitionist framing in a short film I made called Prostitution Free Zone. What has been fortuitous about working on No Human Involved is that I started out the filming with prison abolitionists, such as Peggy Plews and Kini Seawright. Peggy was the first person I fully connected with in Phoenix, so the entry point to the issues in the film is through a prison abolitionist lens. No Human Involved is perhaps more about understanding incarceration than it is about sex work per se. Marcia Powell was serving a 27 month sentence for solicitation of prostitution, and understanding how that can happen is central to the story, but once she entered prison that last time in 2008 she became subject to the dehumanization and categorization that everyone who is incarcerated is subjected to. I explored with people who knew Marcia in prison whether being labeled a “prostitute” was part of the dynamic of why she was placed in a cage to die in the sun and—perhaps unexpectedly for me—this didn’t seem to be the primary issue. There is a whole other story about women, incarceration, resistance and justice that is found through exploring what happened to Marcia that goes beyond the very real stigma that people in the sex trade routinely suffer.

So, what does that mean in terms of collaboration for change? I believe that the film is going to be one of the steps we are taking in truly expanding the sex worker rights’ movement to work hand in hand with an allied and related struggle: prison abolition. Because for a long time, it almost seems as if sex worker rights activism in the US has worked on issues up to the prison gates, such as policing, harassment, violence, and the silencing of communities, but not specifically on the fact that people in the sex trade in the US (and people profiled as such) are going to prison. And I think that the movement is ready to advocate about these concerns given the essential leadership of people like Cris Sardina, Liz Coplen, Sharmus Outlaw and Monica Jones, who are all people who have also experienced incarceration and hold the reality of that always in their work. The film is linked to a lot of organizing in Phoenix, and beyond that, plans to dismantle the system I mentioned above, that routes people affected by the criminalization of sex work into courts where there is no justice and then into jail or prison. But it is also the reality that members of the sex work community are already in prison and that part of our work must also include partnering with those already on the inside to make a change.

What have you learned from working with Phoenix-based social justice organizations such as SWOP-Phoenix, Arizona Prison Watch, and ACLU Arizona? How do you feel the prison system in Arizona is uniquely unjust, and what did you find was universal to criminalization nationwide?

Nationally, the general public is beginning to acknowledge that the prison system is eating American society away from the inside. Arizona is out of step with that trend, and many people currently involved in leading Arizona’s systems of incarceration are perversely proud of their hard-line approach. Arizona is a fearsome example of what happens when prisons are viewed as both a solution and a business. The Arizona ACLU has just released new findings which state that, “every week, on average, a patient who has been neglected or mistreated dies in the Arizona prison system.” But we also need to resist the temptation to write Arizona off as a one very bad example. This minimizes the connectedness we need to have in order to make change nationally. In other parts of the US, the same problems exist. In Michigan, for example, women in the Huron Valley Correctional Facility have been tied up and denied food and water.

The observation that always stays with me about Phoenix is that activism there has to hold multiple oppressions in mind for organizing to be effective. Because in Arizona you can’t think about prisons without thinking about other walls like the border. So in my experience, the activists and organizations in Phoenix that I encountered during filming are already more connected across issues and tend to have a broader view about what it means to engage in social justice than I have observed in some organizing in the Northeast. I would like people in other parts of the US to see what I have seen, moving past the headlines about terrible Phoenix and Arizona are, and seeing what is beautiful in social movements there.

When I first started filming, Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch was one of the main contacts I had. Peggy Plews is extremely knowledgeable—she is a true revolutionary. From Peggy, I have come to a whole new vision of activism, a whole new range of research skills, and a new appreciation for the power of art to create change. In terms of advocacy for the rights of people in the sex trade per se, the first person I met in Phoenix was Monica Jones—we were introduced by a mutual friend at Food Not Bombs—who at that time was finding her own way to advocate about the experiences of trans women of color. During the filming, SWOP-Phoenix began to emerge under the leadership of Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman, responding to intensified policing under Project ROSE. There was a crucial moment when Peggy, Monica, Jaclyn and many other people came together to plan to take on Project ROSE and I was there to film and learn about it.

I won’t be referring too much during No Human Involved to ACLU-Arizona specifically, because I connected with what that organization was doing more in regards to the Monica Jones case which takes off just as No Human Involved ends. One of the reasons why I love Monica so much as a friend and activist is that she feels very strongly too that her case should not overshadow what we need to say about Marcia Powell.

Shadowrock Church, where Marcia Powell's ashes are kept (Photo by PJ Starr)

Shadowrock Church, where Marcia Powell’s ashes are kept. (Photo by PJ Starr)

When I first began doing sex workers’ rights, prison abolition, and harm reduction activism in the early aughts, I worked on a case very similar to Marcia Powell’s in which an opiate user named Kelly Jo Griffen died from withdrawal complications at Framingham Women’s Prison. Prison staff reportedly did nothing but laugh at her and order her to clean up her own vomit. Hearkening back to this inhuman callousness within the criminal justice system, your film takes its title from the phrase “NO HUMANS INVOLVED”—the colloquialism with which cops dismiss crimes in which the victims are sex workers, drug users, and/or poor people of color as too unimportant to be solved. In the face of this sort of pervasive dehumanization by the criminal injustice system, what can we do as activists and community members?

Thank you for sharing what happened to Kelly Jo Griffen. I also recall another story about a woman in Australia named Puongthong Simaplee who died in a similar way. I think sharing these kinds of examples highlights what we need to be talking about. This is the stigmatizing view, which can be put into practice in prisons, that if someone uses drugs or does street based sex work or “fails” by being poor that they are nothing, just trash to be cleaned away. Along the way I’ve had people in the filmmaking world say—not folks at Maysles but at other mainstream venues—”Marcia Powell is not a good example for a documentary because she was a drug user/obviously crazy” or “How can you tell a story about Marcia if there isn’t much footage of her in person?” I’ve found through my research that her life and path defies what people think about her as “not a human.”

I think then that what we can do as advocates is always question openly, put ourselves on the public record, as challenging the dehumanization. And this means that we have to resist the temptation of saying, “Well, I deserve rights because I am not a drug user, I am not poor, I made a lot of money, I am intelligent…” I understand that folks want to validate their experience by saying things like this, but all that is happening is that we re-inscribe the system that dehumanizes so many.

Women like Marcia Powell, with her missing teeth, her weather-beaten face, and her mental health issues, are often ignored by the movement as we choose instead to focus on the high profile court cases of high-earning escorts. How can we encourage the sex workers’ rights movement to take up the cause of the most marginalized among us, people who aren’t happy hooker poster children?

There is a system much bigger than the sex worker rights’ movement that divides people into the worthy and unworthy. And to be a “worthy” sex worker is to be “nice looking”, white or very light skinned, educated, polite and non-confrontational. I think we must remain vigilant to not buy into the temporary and questionable rewards of framing sex worker rights as rights for people who apparently fit into this system. I do not blame the community of sex workers for the existence of the system of control I just named, but I think that we have a responsibility to unpack it and not buy into it. What I think is the strength of organizing in the United States is that this element of questioning has always been there, we just have to ally ourselves with it.

But I don’t want to sound like rejecting a whole system of social control is easy. It is not. When we don’t write sexy stories or make glamorous documentary films that cater to prurient interests, or if we refuse to make films about “sex trafficking” to cater to the excitement of “saving” people, then we cut ourselves out of a whole mainstream system (i.e. funding) that rewards those kinds of films and art works. So as a community we also need to find ways to support leaders who represent these issues and to bring resources to the table for them to do so.

Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch posing with chalk art (Photo by PJ Starr)

Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch posing with chalk art. (Photo by PJ Starr)

How can the community help you complete the film?

Making No Human Involved has been a labor of love, which actually means no one really gave me any financial support to do this. But along the way I’ve had support from folks in Arizona to keep on going. How people can help specifically now is to to donate through tax deductible donations which can be received here.

I fully understand that donating may not be possible for folks—please keep in mind that even a donation of $5 is vital—but if you are on social media then you can like the project page on Facebook and follow it on Twitter. I am also very committed to giving back to the community—there will be a great deal of advocacy coming out linked to the film as I complete it, especially with the Super Bowl happening in Phoenix in 2015. I’d be so happy to work with people on these issues, share what I have learned as we do activism.

How did you get your start as a documentary filmmaker? How would you advise sex workers who aspire to make movies?

The best thing folks in the community have is one another. I got my start when Carol Leigh asked me to film her performing when I came out to visit her in San Francisco one time and she looked at my footage and said, “You know, you frame your shots so well.” A little while later she came to stay with me for three weeks in New York and trained me in editing on Final Cut Pro. Then she gave me a part of one of her films to edit, so on and so forth, step by step. So as a very first step, I recommend speaking to someone who you think could be a mentor and seeing if you can work on a project with that person.

There is a certain “expert” way of talking about filmmaking that seems to prioritize the most expensive equipment, a certain aesthetic based on very expensive training. I would advise sex workers who aspire to be filmmakers but who are not backed by a trust fund or similar support, or who cannot take out loans to cover these expenses, to not be intimidated by that. I also always keep in mind the advice that Carol Leigh gave me about different paths in filmmaking. There is no one “ideal” way—filmmaking is a process of finding a way. You can find all kinds of community filmmaking places now that have editing stations, so you don’t even need to buy a lot of software. What you need is a story you want to tell, and an affordable camera with a set of headphones and a wireless mic to clip on to someone to capture good audio. Everything else is fluff.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Vegan Vixen September 20, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Really good interview and I appreciate the work P.J. Starr is doing. I would also like to see collaboration between the sex workers’ rights and prison abolition movement. There already seems to be some to a degree. In response to the question about how to get the sex workers’ rights movement to focus more on cases such as Marcia Powell rather than just high profile escorts, the sex workers’ rights movement was how I first learned of Marcia Powell. This was at an International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers event, though this wasn’t the only time I have ever noticed sex workers’ rights activists addressing this.

Unfortunately, I found the “happy hooker poster child” statement (not by P.J) to reflect an unjustified stereotype that is used against the sex workers’ rights movement so much. This distracted me from what I thought was an otherwise very insightful interview. Yes, there are people in the sex workers’ rights movement who have expressed positive attitudes toward sex work. However, this doesn’t mean the activists are only concerned about “happy hookers.” Rather, one of the main components of sex workers rights advocacy is our right to define for ourselves how we feel about our work. Also, all the negative overgeneralizations about sex work can get very distressing and does not reflect all of our experiences. I say this as somebody who hasn’t had all wonderful experiences in sex work and an adverse experience led me to sex worker advocacy. Sometimes, people may just need to focus on the positive as a way to challenge the negative energy we can be subject to from the dominant society–or at the very least, to bring some balance to the dominant discourse on prostitution.

That said, there are also sex workers’ rights activists who have expressed experiences and perspectives far from the “happy hooker” image–experiences of being exploited, arrested, subject to violence, etc. There is definitely room for the sex workers’ rights movement to diversity. Yet, since I’ve become involved in the movement about a decade ago, I’ve noticed the movement in the U.S. grow and become more diverse. I still wouldn’t say that every group of sex workers is equally represented in the movement.

The sex workers’ rights movement has been at the forefront of addressing abuses against sex workers, including those by the system, and at the forefront of advocating for harm reduction and stopping hatred and violence toward sex workers. Not to mention, also giving sex workers voices in policies affecting our livelihood–which our voices are all too often excluded from. I say voices in the plural because we speak from multiple voices, not just one. To imply that the sex workers’ rights movement is mainly about promoting a “happy hooker” image trivializes the important social, political, and economic justice issues that sex workers’ rights activists have tirelessly been working on, despite backlash. Yet, we’re not perfect and there’s always room to improve.


Robin D September 21, 2014 at 8:48 am

Sex workers on the internet who are not boots on ground activists are a lot worse about being snooty and elitist than movement people. Though they like anyone can be outright dangerous, hostile, or just microaggressive. There are careerists who defect, there are people who are so petty and vindictive that they will even betray people to LE/IRS/out them to people they know, there are the usual sorts of predators around activist groups (don’t know of LE wasting their resources on us but they’d obviously fall into this category), and a sea of people (ok, “sea” is not the norm yet in the US for this organizing) more valued societally than you is more intimidating than the usual things people get intimidated by, not to mention the very real structural impediments to diverse membership even where there have been inroads in that direction.


Robin D September 21, 2014 at 8:56 am

Though I have to say, PJ Starr is one of the good ones who has supported me in a lot of ways, and she is boots on the ground, very much so. I’ve always been a big believer in coalition-building like what’s described here, it definitely is less of a thing in sw org’ing the Northeast, and seems to have become even less so since I left.

From what I remember from the time, people were sympathetic to Marcia Powell, but it’s true that she hits two of the biggest stigmas that sw rights people perpetuate against each other – mental illness and drug use.


Bruce July 17, 2015 at 8:33 am

American media and consciousness loves to display the bright careers and opportunity possible here. But lo to anyone who stumbles and falls, for some there are second chances for others it is a brutal crushing ride down a steep decline. It must be a social phenomena, because it occurs in different systems. In the military we called it the “Chopping Block”. It was not so prevalent in Public school because for all intensive purposes the kids ran the show, and that was far more harsh than the administration. I never met, knew the name or saw my High School principle. I was taught the principles of the chopping block in my childhood home so I had no problem mustering the discipline to avoid it in other social systems. When one person is given power over another the “chopping block” effect is inevitable. Public school was a free for all, still brutal but not at all systemized so you when you walked away from a situation, you were unencumbered in the next.
The military and the legal system not so, the stigma, the systems assessment of you follows you.
In that sense the legal system fails to recognize unintended power it inflicts upon the person.
It gives power to others in the system who’s intentions and good will are much less honorable
than as the system was designed. The prison system attracts sadists like ants to a picnic basket.
The American penal system needs to recognize this social fact, as was so famously demonstrated in the UCSF psychology experiment in the 70s. By recognizing this social phenomena, safeguards can be put in place instead of ignoring the effect and allowing sadists to do harm of demonic proportion to human beings who never hurt anyone except themselves. Having sex in what ever
situation does not warrant death.


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