prison industrial complex

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.

[READ MORE]

{ 4 comments }

I don't think she stands for what you think she stands for.

I don’t think she stands for what you think she stands for.

With contributions by Cathryn Berarovich

In this election, there is no viable option for those of us looking to build a better world. People have exclaimed, “What about Bernie?! What about Jill Stein?” And maybe a little while ago, before looking into their respective platforms, I would have said, “Okay, yeah, sure—but organize.” But fortunately, since then I’ve been schooled by other pros on the position the US Green Party takes on our labor, and I’ve withdrawn my initial, albeit less-than-enthusiastic support.

The Green Party is traditionally seen as the go-to camp for independent voters with progressive ideals. Ultimately, however, it falls in line with the existing two party system of pro-carceral, punitive, reductionist policies on sex work. It is not a radical alternative; it is not a progressive bastion of thoughtful consideration for marginalized communities. If you cannot stand with folks in criminalized work, demand they be able to organize openly, and advocate for their full decriminalization, then you are on the wrong side of history.

When your platform position on sex work falls under the heading of ‘Violence and Oppression,’ you are no different from the dominant two capitalist parties.

“We urge that the term “sex work” not be used in relation to prostitution,” the GP USA platform proclaims. Yet, this is the term we as workers demand to be called. We are laborers in the trade of sex.

“With the increasing conflation of trafficking (the violent and illegal trafficking in women and girls for forced sex) with prostitution,” the GP platform continues, “it is impossible to know which is which, and what violence the term ‘sex work’ is masking.”

It absolutely is possible to know which is which, but that might require talking to actual sex workers, something the GP USA seems uninterested in doing. The Green Party stance on sex work demonstrates that sex workers are excluded from party policy dialogue. It also takes agency away from both consenting voluntary workers and trafficking survivors. It implies we cannot speak for ourselves, and we can. The platform ignores the damage the conflation of voluntary sex work with the term ‘human trafficking’ does to both consenting workers and trafficking survivors. Arrest, jail time, prison sentences, open records in Human Trafficking court—this is violence, and yet it’s what the GP USA calls safety.

The GP USA should know that even if the police manage to find actual victims of trafficking, rather than consenting adults engaged in sex work, in the course of their sting operations, their so-called rescue methods are carcerally violent. Trafficking survivors are thrown in cages just like voluntary workers, exacerbating their trauma, rather than being given the mental health care and exit resources they need. The purported threat of trafficking is used as a justification for the arrest and imprisonment of both trafficking survivors and consenting workers.

Perhaps the most damning statement in the platform document is the one that follows: “No source in existence knows which forms of prostitution comprise forced sex and which comprise free will or choice prostitution.”

No source in existence?! How about this blog? Or SWOP-USA, Red Umbrella Project, Paulo Longo Research Initiative, or Support Ho(s)e, to name a few? There are numerous sex worker led initiatives, organizations, and publications which can be easily found and sourced. All the time, more and more workers are coming out and actively organizing for decriminalization, or campaigning around others who have been targeted by state violence. Google that shit.

[READ MORE]

{ 26 comments }

Alisha Walker. (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)

Alisha Walker (Courtesy of Sherri Chatman)

by Brit Schulte and Cathryn Berarovich of the Support Ho(s)e Collective 

Alisha Walker was just 20 years old when she had to defend herself against a client who was drunk and violent. She was 22 when she was convicted of second degree murder and 15 years in prison for defending both her own life and the life of a friend who was also on the scene. She is now 23 years old and behind bars at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois, seeking new legal representation and awaiting an appeals process.

In January 2014, Alisha Walker and a close friend of hers went to Alan Filan’s house in Orland Park, a Chicago suburb, to do a double session with Filan. Walker had seen Filan at least twice, and she had not screened him through any online resources. Afterwards, Walker told her mother that she immediately knew something was different about Filan this time. He was heavily intoxicated and very aggressive. He insisted that Walker’s friend didn’t look like her photos in the Backpage advertisement. When the two women refused to have unprotected sex with him, he threatened them with a knife. Walker was able to wrestle the knife from Filan and stab him several times, saving her own life and the life of her friend.

Alisha Walker, like many of us, comes from an average working class family, while her clients, like Filan, are mostly well-off and well-connected. Filan’s brother William Filan is a high-paid lobbyist whose clients have included the city of Chicago and JP Morgan Chase. His sister Denise Filan is a judge in the third subcircuit of Cook County.

Even Alan Filan himself was covered in a veneer of respectability, a seemingly-upstanding community member who taught at Brother Rice Catholic High School. It was easy for the media to portray Filan as a good man, rather than the violent aggressor he was, despite his tendency to be a mean, misogynistic drunk. Our efforts to screen his e-mails revealed multiple accounts of sex workers listing him as a bad client, cautioning against booking sessions with him. Even the articles most sympathetic to his memory recount his casual verbal abuse of the young soccer players whom he coached.

Walker was held in Cook County without bond for over two years while the media sensationalized the death of her attacker with wildly differing accounts of how many stab wounds he’d actually suffered, going so far as to include hesitation marks among the mortal wounds. Accounts of the stab wounds numbered from 10 to 14 in news articles, though the coroner’s report lists 14 hesitation marks and only two mortally inflicted wounds. Walker’s account of Filan’s drunkenness was confirmed by toxicology reports showing Filan’s blood alcohol content registered at a 0.208 when he was found days after his death.

Filan was remembered as a flawed but lovable man, brutally murdered. Walker, however, was never spoken about as a human being, the devoted big sister and caring and outgoing young woman her mother describes her as. Media outlets covering the story rarely mentioned that she had seen Filan at least twice without incident before he attacked her. Nor did they remark on the fact that she saved her own life and that of another woman’s in the face of Filan’s assault. There were at least 20 Backpage ads printed out on Filan’s desk, but the media often omitted this detail in their stories on the case. Nor did most articles on Walker address rumors that Filan was a habitual client of sex workers, and often (as Chicago sex worker screening sources record) was not respectful of the workers he saw.

[READ MORE]

{ 3 comments }

Ceyenne Doroshow. (Photo courtesy of Lily Fury)

Ceyenne Doroshow. (Photo by John Mastbrook, courtesy of Lily Fury)

Ceyenne Doroshow originally made a name for herself on stage as one of the seasoned performance artists and audience favorites of the Red Umbrella Diaries’ storytelling nights. She is featured as one of seven sex workers who tell their story on the newly released documentary The Red Umbrella Diaries, which will have its world premiere in Portland, Oregon today. In her compelling memoir cookbook, Cooking in Heels, written with Red Umbrella Project’s Audacia Ray, she tells her story: a black transgender woman’s triumph over adversity with the help of her passion for cooking. Doroshow stays busy as a published author, a public speaker, a documentary star, and a stage darling while never forgetting her roots. She remains committed to doing activist work, whether that means incorporating her lived experiences into her performances, lending her voice to trans rights conferences across the country, fostering LGBT youth, or working at The River Fund helping impoverished families. Lily Fury transcribed this from a series of conversations with Doroshow.

What have been some of the more memorable reactions to your book?

Being nominated for the MOTHA (Museum of Transgender History and Arts) awards and voted for by women like Janet Mock…I remember the same day Audacia Ray e-mailed me a review of my book that literally brought me to tears. It wasn’t a long drawn out review, but it got straight to the point, emphasizing [that] “This book changed my life.” And that was the take home that you want to take back into society whenever you do projects, whenever you bare your soul.

It’s not just a cookbook, it’s a memoir cookbook that shares something people rarely share. There’s no school to go to when dealing with the transgender child, and there were actually parents that got in contact with me to thank me or because they had made mistakes, and it was incredibly gratifying for me that these parents recognized their mistakes through my memoir…I set out to hopefully help one person and I found out I’m helping a whole lot more, and it’s really empowering.

Can you speak about your experience being outed publicly as a sex worker and serving time?

I was railroaded. This was something that usually someone would just get a desk appearance, probably a fine, and get out, but Governor Christie wanted to make me an example…I had to serve 30 days in jail, I didn’t get a warning, I didn’t get what like most people would get—if you’re of a certain level of stature in life, you’re allowed to fix your stuff.

They put me in protective custody with [another] trans identifying person, which was safer to an extent. But being in protective custody, which is really cruel in itself, is 23 hours being locked in a cell and having to defecate in front of someone, having to bear your most private pain, your tears, with a stranger you don’t know. But at the same time, it was gratifying that there was somebody there with me in that cell. Had there not been anybody, I would have come out far more damaged.

But they had these vents in the jail and I could talk to other inmates and some of them recognized me from Jersey City and some of them recognized me from the newspaper. To…add insult [to injury]…my newspaper article was floating around the cells because the CO’s had actually shown them to the inmates and the other guards. Which had made me horrified, but at the same time I had nothing to be ashamed of. It was more the process of…them wanting to publicly shame you to the point where you may not want to live or you may become suicidal. There’s no therapy for that. In my opinion, there’s no therapy for coming home because when you come home your security is broken because the whole process of trusting the system…is revealed to be a lie.

[READ MORE]

{ 1 comment }

(Screenshot from CNN video.)

Racism, much? (Screenshot from CNN video.)

After several years of working in nonprofit agencies that take a harm reduction approach to working with drug users and sex workers, I’ve observed many similarities between the war on drugs and the war on trafficking. As the drug war has lost popularity, the war on trafficking has gained momentum. Both the war on drugs and the war on trafficking are housed within the criminal justice system, operating through punishment and incarceration. Both wars seek to eliminate their abstract opponents by attacking communities of drug users and sex workers, composed mainly of poor people of color.

[READ MORE]

{ 8 comments }