Jaclyn Dairman

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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Monica Jones with other SWOP-Phoenix members (Photo by Peggy Plews, courtesy of SWOP-Phoenix)

Monica Jones with other SWOP-Phoenix members (Photo by Peggy Plews, courtesy of SWOP-Phoenix)

SWOP-Phoenix, a new branch of national sex workers’ rights organization Sex Workers Outreach Project, mounted a campaign this year against the Project ROSE (Reaching Out To The Sexually Exploited) Prostitution Diversion Initiative, in which Phoenix police and students from the Arizona State University School of Social Work team up twice a year to arrest local sex workers who then face criminal charges or a six-month diversion program. After SWOP-Phoenix protested against Project ROSE in May, one of the protest participants was picked up by an undercover officer the following night and taken to the Project ROSE site. The SWOP member, Monica Jones, an accomplished activist and a student who takes courses at the ASU School of Social Work herself, was deemed ineligible for diversion, and now faces up to six months in jail. Fellow Phoenix activists started an indiegogo fundraiser for Jones’ legal defense. I interviewed SWOP-Phoenix member Jaclyn Moskal-Dairman over the course of a week. The following is modified from the Google doc shared between us as an outgrowth of an email interview.

One of your members, Monica Jones, was arrested for “manifestation of prostitution” after participating in the protests against Project Rose. Jones was in the diversion program before, and spoke eloquently about her experience being mistreated there as a trans woman and a student sex worker. Can you tell me more about her case?

We believe Monica was targeted by the Phoenix police department. The evening after she spoke at the protest she was walking to a bar in her neighborhood. She accepted a ride from what turned out to be an undercover cop. He began to solicit her and she warned him he that he should be careful because of the Project ROSE stings that were going on that evening. He kept propositioning her and she asked to be let out of his vehicle. He did not let her out and actually changed lanes so she couldn’t exit the car. She was frightened and thought she was being kidnapped (which she was). She asked him if he was a cop, because she didn’t want to assault an officer. They were pulled over for a “routine traffic stop” and she was placed under arrest for the intent to manifest prostitution.

What was SWOP-Phoenix’s response when you first heard about Project ROSE? What would you say to those who claim that diversion is at least an improvement over wholesale incarceration?

When I heard about Project ROSE through an activist friend I set out to interview the professor at the ASU School of Social Work who spearheaded the initiative, Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz. As a researcher, I tried my best to go into the interview unbiased until I had all of the details. Upon completing the interview I confronted Dr. Roe-Sepowitz about what I felt was wrong with Project ROSE, particularly the inherent contradiction of fighting coercion with coercion. Dr. Roe-Sepowitz explained that the initiative is completely police-driven. The School of Social Work has community organizations meet the apprehended community members at the initiative’s command post at Bethany Bible Church. The arrestees are met with prosecutors, as well as “tour guides,” who are ex-sex workers, and are told that they can have access to hygiene products, a hot meal, clothing, detox, mental healthcare, healthcare, safe housing and more, if they meet the eligibility criteria. After the interview, I compiled the research and met with a couple of activists from the Phoenix Harm Reduction Organization to discuss what we should do about it. They knew some folks from SWOP Tucson (who are incredible and have been supportive and essential in the creation of the Phoenix chapter) and SWOP PHX was formed as an emergency response. We immediately reached out to other activists and organizations, such as members of  [immigrant rights organization] Puente and Arizona Prison Watch, and began to strategize. We found out the exact dates of the next stings and began street and internet outreach to inform workers of the impending raids, handing out pamphlets and Know Your Rights information. We also protested outside of the Project ROSE command post, Bethany Bible Church.

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