SWOP-Phoenix

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 this February. (Photo via the Support Monica Jones Facebook, courtesy of Monica Jones)

Monica Jones. (Photo by PJ Starr, via the Support Monica Jones Facebook, courtesy of Monica Jones and PJ Starr)

In May 2013, sex worker and trans rights activist and Arizona State University social work student Monica Jones was charged with “manifestation of prostitution” in Phoenix after accepting a ride from an undercover cop.  Her arrest ignited a firestorm of protest against Project ROSE, a prostitution arrest diversion program run by the ASU School of Social Work and the Phoenix police that utilized arrest sweeps; transphobia in those prostitution arrests; and the potentially unconstitutional “manifestation of prostitution” statute under which she was prosecuted. The ACLU, SWOP-Phoenix, and other sex work and GLBT activists stood in solidarity with Jones as she gained international attention speaking out against her charges. 

“The reason why this law [the manifestation of prostitution statute] is so unjust is because it gives the police the credibility to say who’s a sex worker, who’s not a sex worker…it violates our [our First Amendment rights]—just to walk down the street, our freedom of speech,” Jones explained to us. Since her arrest, Jones has gained prominence as an eminent activist, been interviewed by dozens of media outlets, met Laverne Cox, and traveled to Australia for public speaking engagements and study, all while working towards finishing her social work degree.

In November, Jones told Best Practices Policy Project that Project ROSE had been shut down, a crucial victory for the movement in Arizona. And though Jones was initially convicted, her January 2014 appeal was successful and the conviction was vacated. We spoke with her just before the announcement was made; below is a condensed and edited version of our interview, originally conducted via video chat.

Recently, your conviction was vacated. What does that mean for you? What’s next?

I got a call from the court yesterday evening saying that the prosecutors are not going to retry me. So right now we’re looking to see if it’s with prejudice or without prejudice and will it still have an effect on me challenging the constitutionality of the law.

So your ultimate goal with your legal team is to use the case to overturn the law altogether. How can people from other states help fight the law; help fight your campaign against it?

I think there’s a lot more laws like this across this country—like “loitering with intent of prostitution,” and condoms as evidence. I think that they need to take on their own fights in their own homes and their own cities. Because when we get rid of these laws it basically gets rid of sexism and discrimination and transphobia. And it takes the power away from the cops and the justice system to say who is sex working and who’s not sex working.

 A story that brought you to the news in the last few months was your deportation from Australia at the Sydney Airport. From what I read, during your encounter with immigration you were pressured by the producers of the reality show Border Security to have your case filmed. When you refused after initially agreeing, after you realized they planned to sensationalize your story, customs officials began to treat you much more harshly. Can you tell us more about what happened there?

So what happened was I was legally constrained to come back to my appeals. I was doing my internship in Australia, with Scarlet Alliance, a great sex worker organization there, and I was leaving there to come back for my case and I was traveling back to Australia in three days. So when I got to the airport to leave to come to the U.S., they went through all my stuff. They went through my purse, they went through my phone, they went through my suitcase, they went through everything. I had everything about my court case in there in the folder. They went in a back room and went through that. They said, “Okay, you’re good to go.” So I was thinking, okay, I’m good to go.

And when I came back from the U.S., they had pulled me to the side and took me into this room, where I was proceeded to be asked, “Do you want to be filmed by this camera crew?” And the producer of the show said, “We think that your story is interesting.” Which, I’d never told them anything about my story—they know nothing about my story! And so I’m thinking, how do they know my story is interesting? So they kept on asking me questions.

After being pressured I agreed to be filmed. But during the middle of it, I said, “I don’t feel right with this, I think this is suspicious.” And once I did that they were very harsh against me—”Oh, you were doing this, you violated your visa…”

If I violated my visa, you guys should have let me know when you guys originally checked me on my way out of the country! The judge later asked [the immigration officials],” Why were you checking her on her way out of the country?” So they said I was a threat to national security. So I guess activism is a threat to Australia’s security.

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Janet Mock tweeting about the horrific state of the Black union earlier this week. (Screenshot of Janet Mock's Twitter feed)

Janet Mock tweeting about the horrific state of the Black union earlier this week. (Screenshot of Janet Mock’s Twitter feed)

Trans and sex workers’ rights activist Monica Jones appealed her conviction on false charges of “manifesting prostitution” this Monday. In related news, Project ROSE, the criminally wrongheaded alliance between the Arizona State School of Social Work and the Phoenix police in which sex workers were arrested in stings and funneled into jail or diversion programs, the very one which Jones was sent to when she was arrested, has shut down.

However, the ASU researchers behind Project ROSE just got a 1.4 million dollar grant to prevent child sex trafficking.

The Vancouver police department announced that it will not be using C-36 as a guideline when making arrests; consenting adults buying and selling sex will be left to conduct their business undisturbed.

The impact of C-36 will be most disastrous for the most marginalized groups of sex workers, First Nations women and migrants.

Immigrant sex workers from Asia and Central America deny that they are trafficked. They announced that they do feel like victims of police, however.

New reality show The Sex Factor promises to be The X Factor for adult stars, offering competitors the exposure needed for success in the saturated market of porn…and further saturating the market.

Feminism needs sex workers and trans people (and presumably trans sex workers as well).

It’s hard to be a sex worker without a community of sex workers to commiserate with and give you moral support and perspective in the form of a healthy dose of reality. This Ivy League student sex worker could use the latter: in this piece, she expresses her surprise at how easy it was to become a “prostitute”: aren’t we all chain smoking, jaded women of the world? Unlike her.

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Bangladeshi sex workers form a human chain in front of the Jatiya Press Club (Photo by Sony Ramany, via demotix.com)

Bangladeshi sex workers form a human chain in front of the Jatiya Press Club (Photo by Sony Ramany, via demotix.com)

The prostitution crackdown in the Guangdong Province of China will continue; 363 suspects have already been detained.

Strange news out of San Francisco last week as the faith-based sex workers’ outreach Solace SF was closed under allegations of fraud against founder Laura Lasky.

Canadian sex worker Celine Bisette acknowledges that Canada has done a terrific job asking the community at large how to re-write sex work laws and a terrible job asking actual sex workers how to re-write sex work laws.

This shouldn’t be a world first, but it is: a New Zealand sex worker has won a landmark sexual harassment case against her former employer, a Wellington brothel owner.

What’s not to love about Janet Mock? This is the woman that stuck it to the first tuberous vegetable to host a cable news show – Piers Morgan – in the most epic way possible. Here, Dr. Brooke Magnanti interviews Mock, amongst other things, about her sensationalized past as a sex worker.

Some Spanish feminists are pissed off about the Asociación de Profesionales del Sexo “intro to prostitution” class, offered in response to the growing number of women turning to sex work in Spain’s economic crisis. Of course, leaving inexperienced sex workers without the skills to manage the risks of their job is obviously the feminist solution.

In honor of International Sex Workers’ Rights Day this week, sex workers in Bangladesh formed a human chain in front of the Jatiya Press Club on Monday to realize their demands.

Contribute to this indiegogo campaign to send two members of SWOP-Phoenix and the Best Practices Policy Project to Geneva to educate the U.N. about human rights violations perpetrated by Arizona State University diversion program Project ROSE and the Phoenix police and the framing of sex workers’ rights activist Monica Jones for “manifestation of prostitution.”

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Gloria Leonard, 1940-2014. (image via emovieposter.com)

Gloria Leonard, 1940-2014. (image via emovieposter.com)

Happy Chinese New Year! Finally, it’s the Year of the Whores.

Rest in peace, Gloria Leonard. You sassy old dame, you.

Hey, guys, remember our friend Alice Schwarzer? The German “feminist” who is vehemently anti-sex work. Yeah, well, turns out she was hiding a lot of her money in a Swiss bank account and she got BUSTED! Schadenfreude.

This could easily be the coolest field trip ever. Wouldn’t it be fun to pay a visit to the Red Light Secrets museum, an educational museum about sex work?

Oh, hell yes. Male escorts and porn workers will compete on Saturday to be crowned Mr. Florida. The contest is a preliminary to the Hookies and serves to fight myth and stigma surrounding sex work.

One Vancouver strip club is willing to throw Mayor Ford a bone.

Can you smell what The Rock is cookin’? And question what The Rock is readin‘?

This Cosmopolitan writer epiphanizes that not all porn workers stay fit and attractive by having “coke-fueled orgies and plastic surgery.” Apparently, they do something called, “exercise.” WELL, whaddya know? [READ MORE]

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