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.
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.
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.
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.
How did Sheriff Arpaio’s inmate human rights abuses contribute to Marcia Powell’s death?
Marcia Powell died in Perryville Prison, a state facility in a town called Goodyear outside of Phoenix. State prisons are overseen by the Arizona Department of Corrections so there is no direct relationship to the Phoenix/Maricopa county jail facilities that Joe Arpaio ran for six terms until he was voted out of office in 2016. The person who [was] overseeing the prison where Marcia Powell died was Charles Ryan, who is still currently the director of Arizona Department of Corrections. (For more about the difference between County Jail and Prisons in AZ, see this.)
Even though the people in charge of the jails and prisons are different, the abuses in places like Tent City—a collection of tents set up under the direction of Joe Arpaio in a dusty lot next to Maricopa County Jail—are part of a continuum of what happens in the prison industrial complex. The tents in Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail are reported to heat up to over 150 degrees. Placing people in intensely hot environments like this is similar to what we know killed Marcia Powell.
In 2012 I visited Tent City, I saw inmates in the tents, and it is as bad as you could imagine it would be. Joe Arpaio wanted the public to see how badly he treated prisoners because he was proud of what he had done. Maricopa County Jails have been cited numerous times for violating health and rights for these and other reasons. After she was arrested, Marcia Powell spent time in a Maricopa County Jail in 2008 while awaiting court hearings and before being transferred to Perryville Prison. In No Human Involved, a woman who saw Marcia enter Perryville Prison described her as being “all tore up” because she was coming in from County Jail and explains that everyone who comes in from County is that way due to the conditions there.
In the years following Marcia Powell’s death in 2009, the ACLU AZ filed a lawsuit against Charles Ryan, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, regarding failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care to inmates. Many of the advocates I met during filming No Human Involved contributed to this suit—it was filed in 2012—and I had the chance to learn a lot about the situation, reading over the documentation of the incredible suffering people have endured while in prison in Arizona.
In 2015, Arizona Department of Corrections settled the suit, committing to provide health care and take 100 other measures to rectify the issues. But Ryan has not done so. In July this year, a federal judge compared Charles Ryan to “the recently convicted Sheriff in our county who thought he could do as he wished” because he has challenged the legitimacy of orders to comply with the settlement. Once again the theme of just how hot it can get in Arizona was noted by the federal judge who—it was reported in the Phoenix New Times-–visited a “prison health clinic that was so hot that his hearing aid was destroyed from sweating so much.” The judge found this worrying because “inmates who are taking medications that make them extremely sensitive to heat have to use that same clinic.” Marcia Powell was also taking medications that made her more sensitive to the heat.
During your work on the documentary, what did you discover about how other sex workers suffered from Arpaio’s violations of inmate human rights?
What I learned is that each year hundreds of sex workers and people convicted of prostitution-related offenses are subjected to the rights violating and unconstitutional conditions of Maricopa County Jails. And until 2016, they were serving under Joe Arpaio’s reign. In Phoenix, approximately 1000 people per year are arrested for prostitution, though in some years it can be nearly double that figure. Raids–such as [those for] the now defunct Project ROSE–can result in more than 100 people being arrested at a time over a weekend. Many of the people arrested for prostitution await their court date while locked up in Maricopa County Jails and then serve their sentence in Maricopa County Jails. Jail time for prostitution offenses is written into the law in Arizona, 15 days for the first offense, 30 for the second, 60 for the third and after that people are charged with a class 5 felony and must spend 180 or more [days] in prison. That is why Marcia was serving more than 2 years time, because she had 5 prior offenses so she received the standard mandatory sentence as per this sentencing chart.
It is very hard to fight prostitution charges in Arizona and very few people have the resources to do so. During Monica Jones’ initial court appearances after she was arrested for “manifestation of the intent to prostitute,” we got some indication of just how pervasive it is to route people through the system and into jail. At her initial court appearance in 2013, Monica indicated that she intended to plead “not guilty” and this was such a surprise to the court functionaries that they had to delay her appearance and send her to another courtroom. The reason? The primary courtroom set up for people charged with prostitution related offences is set up purely for people to plead “guilty.”
What sort of conclusions do you make from Marcia Powell’s death and the blood on Sheriff Arpaio’s hands about the necessary connection between the sex worker rights movement and prison reform/prison abolition?
I keep thinking back to something Peggy Plews (of Arizona Prison Watch) said to me back in 2012 on election night when people were hoping that Joe Arpaio would be voted out. She noted that even if Joe Arpaio were removed from his office that the system would continue with another Sheriff. It was such a good reminder of keeping focused on the overall picture of what needs to change and to not be distracted by a short term “win.”
Based on what I’ve read, Joe Arpaio is similar to Trump in terms of courting media attention in spectacular ways and trumpeting [his] participation in human rights abuses to get that attention. It would be very easy to say that now that Arpaio is no longer there, things must be better because he built himself up in such a grotesque manner to make himself seem all powerful and essential to the system.
Yes, I am relieved that Arpaio is no longer in office, but day to day the system continues on without Arpaio because no one person is essential to it. The Phoenix vice squad is still out there arresting sex workers, the court system still operates exactly as it did when Marcia Powell received the mandatory sentence of 2.25 years, and Arizona systems of incarceration are just as dehumanizing and dangerous as they ever were. As sex worker rights advocates, we need to hold the totality of what needs to change in our minds–and activists I admire such as Peggy Plews, Monica Jones, and Kini Seawright do that–at the same time as concretely taking the system apart one bit at a time.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton cancelled Arpaio’s sentencing hearing, but has not yet thrown out his conviction based on his motion to dismiss his conviction following the presidential pardon. Instead, she ordered both Arpaio and the U.S. Department of Justice, which is prosecuting the case, to file briefs on why she should or shouldn’t grant the request.
In the meantime, a group of 17 House Democrats sent a letter to the chairman of the Judiciary committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, asking him to hold a hearing on Arpaio’s pardon, which they call “a gross injustice…disrespectful to the rule of law.” Concurrently, an organization of former White House lawyers called United To Protect Democracy, former to monitor the executive branch, sent another letter to the Justice Department’s Criminal Division asking the office to oppose granting Arpaio’s motion.