Carol Leigh

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

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

Editor’s note, 8/31/2017: In light of Trump’s pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio for his contempt of court conviction re: the order to cease his reign of terror against immigrants in Arizona’s Maricopa County, we’re posting an updated edition of my September 2014 interview with PJ Starr. I interviewed Starr on her documentary about Marcia Powell, a sex worker left caged in the Arizona sun to die of heat stroke and dehydration in Perryville Prison. Arpaio is a mass inmate murderer and human rights violator. During his tenure as sheriff, many prisoners died of negligence and exposure, suicide in despair at intolerable conditions, and beatings from guards. Maricopa County paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits over these deaths. The Phoenix New-Times called them “a parade of corpses“, but Arpaio refused to disclose exactly how many prisoners had died. However, the paper verified that the rate of prisoner suicides alone in his facilities “dwarf[ed]” those of “other county lockups”. Arpaio himself once proudly called his tent city a “concentration camp.” His carceral tent city and chain gang model spread throughout the state, and Arpaio’s brutality was itself a reflection of the state’s violent, punitive criminal justice system. Powell wasn’t under Arpaio’s care when she died, but she went through his jail system, and the agony she suffered was a direct result of his approach to the prison industrial complex. Her blood is on his hands. And because of Arizona’s draconian prostitution mandatory minimums, many other sex workers endured Arpaio’s abuses as well. And yet, Arpaio himself is only a symptom of Arizona’s consistent disregard for prisoners’ human rights. 

I asked Starr a few additional questions this week which I’ve appended to the end of this interview, to find out what she learned about Arpaio in the course of making her documentary and working alongside SWOP-Phoenix.

Content warning: this post describes the murder of an imprisoned sex worker through neglect and human rights abuse in graphic detail. It also touches on structural violence and violence against sex workers in general.

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.

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Samuel Pepys (photo by Glyn Thomas)

Brooke Magnanti’s “deranged Samuel Pepys” of an ex-boyfriend actually kept his own diary where he talked about her sex work: so much for his claims that she made it all up, inspired by dead sex workers she saw in the morgue.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown explains why the lay-feminist should also be glad that the Senate trafficking bill is currently dead.  Why do we need another bill for things that are already illegal? Brown points out that

Federal law already prohibits a wide range of conduct related to human trafficking, slavery, and child sexual exploitation. It’s against the law to “recruit” or “entice” anyone for forced sex or labor, or any person under 18 years old for commercial sexual activity. “Harboring,” “transporting,” or in any way “obtaining” them is also illegal. So is “providing” or “benefiting from” them. Additionally, all 50 states have laws specifically criminalizing human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of minors.

Jon Stewart should maybe read more of Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s work.

And more on the stalled bill.

Monica Jones spoke at the UN in Geneva about the need for increased action to protect the human rights of sex workers.

The South Carolina Supreme Court awarded workers’ comp to a dancer who was shot on stage and had previously had her claim denied by a lower court.

Carol Leigh writes about the damage that anti-trafficking campaigns do to sex workers for Open Democracy.

San Diego non-profits Via International and Women’s Empowerment International are teaming up to offer micro-loans to Tijuana sex workers.

The LGBT community in Indonesia, already doubly marginalized through homophobia and the stigma of sex work many in the community engage in to survive, now has to deal with an unofficial fatwa.

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The author indulging in the sort of whore's bath many of us take between clients. (Photo by Justin Bruce Malcolm)

The author indulging in the sort of whore’s bath many of us take between clients. (Photo by Justin Bruce Malcolm)

[The next Whore’s Bath/Solace Spa Suite event will be held at the Desiree Alliance conference on Weds, July 17th, between 11 AM and 6:30 PM. At the time of posting, we believe you can still register  for the Desiree Alliance conference, though you will no longer receive a room discount.—ed.]

Whore’s Bath is a day long retreat into spa and wellness treatments, by sex workers and for sex workers, created for the 7th San Francisco Sex Worker Festival in 2011 by sex worker community organizer Erica Fabulous. Her vision was “to provide a space for current and former sex workers to come together to focus on self care and get some much needed healing and nourishment, something we are generally giving to others while leaving ourselves without.” The bathing is both symbolic and literal. The idea behind the cleansing rituals in the Whores’ Bath offerings are cleansing the body and mind of stress, baggage, pain, confusion, tension, negative energy, drama, isolation, and much more. Water is not necessarily required. At this kind of Whores’ Bath, you can let the love and skill sharing from other providers be the source that replenishes you.

This year, the Whores’ Bath event created for the 8th San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival was held at a cute two and a half star (#PricelineHookers) hotel in the Marina district. Three rooms were rented and there was a large turf grass area with hammocks tied to palm trees where everyone ate delicious food catered by Ckiara Rose. When you arrived on the grass, you were directed to plates and tables of food and drink and could sign up for tarot readings, a tantra workshop, full body massages, reiki, a meditation workshop, foot massages, and express facials. When the sun went down, we all migrated into the bigger suite and continued to bond and commune; laughing, griping, unwinding, eating, drinking and creating new friends and new memories. The late, wonderful Robyn Few, founder of the national Sex Workers Outreach Project and a major contributor to Desiree Alliance conferences, firmly believed in the power of these kinds of good times. It was in hotel room kickbacks like this that she planted seeds in people to grow her revolutionary garden of sex worker organizers. “Hanging with whores is supposed to fucking feel good,”I can imagine her saying, while passing me a gigantic joint.

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A lone red umbrella at the Supreme Court for the hearings on the anti prostitution loyalty pledge. (photo courtesy of  Chi Mgbako and the Leitner Center?)

A lone red umbrella at the Supreme Court for the hearings on the anti prostitution loyalty pledge. (photo by Rebecca Iwerks, courtesy of Chi Mgbako )

On April 22nd, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc. concerning whether the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath (APLO), written into the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The contested legislation is the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, or the Global AIDS Act, which states that no funds made available by PEPFAR “may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.” In August 2005, DKT International, a nonprofit working to improve access to reproductive health services in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, filed a lawsuit against USAID, challenging the anti-prostitution requirement. The case, DKT v. USAID, won in lower district courts, temporarily keeping the enforcement of APLO away from U.S. organizations; however, in February 2007, the U.S. Circuit Court reversed this ruling. In September 2005, the Alliance for Open Society International, Inc. (AOSI) filed a similar suit against USAID. This case was accepted by the Supreme Court in January 2013.

The Anti-Prostitution Pledge is an example of U.S. commitment to moral ideology over public health. Sex worker activists on Facebook organized the Red Umbrellas at the Supreme Court demonstration for this hearing.

Addendum: At the time of publication, the Supreme Court had just struck down the PEPFAR Pledge as of one hour ago. However, this editorial’s point still holds: OSI should have held a stronger stance on decriminalization, and there is still much work to do for sex worker activists to push forward from the momentum of this court decision.

There were only two red umbrellas in front of the Supreme Court, in spite of eager support on the Facebook event page. Actually, one of these red umbrellas was striped: only half-red and half-white, a last minute compromise during a rushed subway scramble. As described in Melissa Gira Grant’s article in The Nation, even these two unassuming umbrellas were folded away and stuffed like contraband beer into organizer David Perez’s brown paper shopping bag. We stood on the Courthouse steps, behind a group of chipper public health advocates in yellow t-shirts. Our 9:00 AM meet-up time was inopportune, as we were a few dozen places late of a seat at the hearing. Umbrellas aside, we really left neither a visual nor numerical impression. [READ MORE]

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Incredible Edible Akynos stars in "Whore Logic" at the San Francisco Sex Workers' Film and Arts Festival (Photo by PJ Starr)

Incredible Edible Akynos stars in “Whore Logic” at the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival (Photo by PJ Starr)

The San Francisco Bay Guardian profiles this year’s Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, focusing on contributions by festival co-founder Carol Leigh/Scarlot Harlot, Mariko Passion, James Darling, Siouxsie Q,  Juba Kalamka, Courtney Trouble, Amber Dawn, and Rhiannon Argo.

Toro Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, outraged pretty much everyone this Monday when he stated publicly that the sexual services of enslaved Chinese and Korean ‘comfort women’ during WWII were a wartime necessity for the Japanese army. He also told reporters that there was no clear evidence that the Japanese military coerced women into service, which any historian can tell you is blatantly false. “Anyone can understand that the system of comfort women was necessary to provide respite for a group of high-strung, rough and tumble crowd of men braving their lives under a storm of bullets,” Hashimoto said. Oh, well, boys will be boys and rape will be rape, right?  Mr. Hashimoto then went on to suggest that U.S. servicemen in Okinawa should “make more use” of the local sex industry to “relieve the sexual energy of the Marines,” which may or may not be a good idea but is unlikely to be taken seriously considering the source. Local Okinawan women’s orgs have demanded an apology from the mayor, feeling that his comments express the misogynist racism mainlanders harbor against Okinawans.

Even anti-trafficking activists oppose using condoms as evidence of prostitution.

A Virginia woman answering what she believed to be an online dating ad was recently arrested for prostitution: “She says he [the undercover police officer] shoved a fistful of cash in front of her face and issued a command: ‘TAKE IT!'”

The Human Rights Watch reports that police in China frequently beat, torture and arbitrarily detain suspected sex workers, often with little or no evidence that they engaged in prostitution.  Condoms as evidence of prostitution are a favored tactic of the Chinese police, and sex workers are often arrested with no evidence against them besides the fact that they were carrying condoms.  Raids on brothels are timed, often occurring a few days ahead of politically sensitive events or whenever someone in government orders an anti-pornography campaign to please the leadership, and it’s during these periods that police officers demand steep bribes or sex, torture sex workers to coerce confessions, or lock them up for as long as two years without trial. Those who wish to see if their eyes can remain dry after reading the Human Rights Watch study on this can find it here.

The New Zealand Herald profiled one such Chinese crackdown on the notoriously thriving sex trade in the city of  Dongguan.

A North Queensland motel has won a legal battle against a sex worker who successfully sued for discrimination after being told she could not work as a prostitute on the premises.

Career focused social media site LinkedIn has forbidden escort and massage advertisements, even in countries in which prostitution is legal. Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof is quoted retorting: ““If it’s OK to do that, is it OK to drop Dairy Queen too because it serves too much fat and calories? Is LinkedIn going to be the moral arbiter, and drop Coca-Cola or anybody who works for a cigarette company?” Dr. Brooke Magnanti also takes issue with the site’s policy in her column in the Telegraph. She points out that “escorts who want to use LinkedIn as a business opportunity will continue to do so. They will just employ code words and careful screening – as they already do on virtually every other social network in the world.”

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