Arizona’s Shameless About the Cage Death of Marcia Powell | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Arizona’s Shameless About the Cage Death of Marcia Powell

CAGE TIME After wading through the Arizona Department of Corrections' recently released doorstop report on the cage death of Marcia Powell, I'm not sure whom I'd rather see get a taste of Powell's open-air sunbake: acting ADC director Charles Ryan, his pathetic excuse for a boss, Governor Jan Brewer, or...
Share this:

After wading through the Arizona Department of Corrections' recently released doorstop report on the cage death of Marcia Powell, I'm not sure whom I'd rather see get a taste of Powell's open-air sunbake: acting ADC director Charles Ryan, his pathetic excuse for a boss, Governor Jan Brewer, or the simpering keyboard-tapper at the Arizona Republic who just penned an anonymous bravo for Ryan titled, "Corrections boss' candor laudable."

Powell, of course, is the 48-year-old who was locked in a shadeless human cage at Goodyear's Perryville Prison on May 19 and endured 107-degree heat for four or more hours (depending on what part of the report you want to believe), was forced to defecate in her cage and on herself like a dog, and was denied adequate, or any, water (more likely the latter) until she collapsed, apparently of heatstroke.

She did not die at Perryville. Rather, Ryan ordered the plug pulled on her at West Valley Medical Center when doctors there found her case to be hopeless.

Ryan, known to his detractors as "Darth Ryan," told doctors, according to the report, that he would be acting as Marcia Powell's guardian, in lieu of family members. Thing is, Powell already had a court-appointed guardian, Maricopa County's Office of the Public Fiduciary, which labored after Powell's death to find a family member who could take custody of her remains. An adoptive mom wanted nothing to do with the disposition of Powell's body, a representative of the Fiduciary's Office later told a judge looking into the matter.

The ADC's report states that "information regarding the guardianship of [inmate] Powell was not available," but, in fact, there was a record of Powell's guardianship; it's just that Ryan did not have the information. Indeed, the report states that a representative from the Fiduciary's Office had visited Powell in ADC custody in March — less than two months before her death. So ADC should have been aware of Powell's guardian.

The report suggests that Ryan acted within the parameters of the law, citing Arizona Revised Statute 41-1604.01, which states that when any person "under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections, other than employees," needs emergency medical care, and there's no next of kin or legal guardian available, the ADC director "may authorize the performance of such necessary medical, surgical, or dental service."

However, when an ADC investigator questioned Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Gary Strickland, counsel for the Fiduciary's Office, about the statute, Strickland had a very different interpretation of it.

"Mr. Strickland stated Title 41 did not entitle the director of the Department of Corrections to make the decision to discontinue life-saving measures on Powell," reads the report, "and that his office, the guardian of Marcia Powell, should have been contacted."

Just a niggling detail — all this stuff about a guardian, right? After all, West Valley Medical Center's Dr. Mae Dumlao told an ADC investigator that Powell was "clinically dead" and there was only "an extremely minimal chance" that Powell could have somehow survived her heat-related injuries. Powell was actually having a heart attack as she entered the hospital, which was in "direct relation to heatstroke and hypobulemic [sic] shock."

Particularly chilling is the description by Dr. Kevin Hiselhorse, who treated Powell upon her arrival to the hospital. Hiselhorse confirmed that "Powell's eyes were dilated and fixed, which indicated brain damage due to her body temperature exceeding 108 degrees." Hiselhorse explained that he could only get a temp of 108 degrees "because thermometers in healthcare only go as high as 108."

Hiselhorse also informed the ADC investigator that he had never seen a patient recover from a 108-degree temperature and that "at that temperature, the body's organs began to melt and the brain begins to coagulate."

What is evident from the report is that the medical crew at West Valley and the emergency medical responders to Powell at the prison did what they could for the woman. West Valley Medical Center ceased treating Powell on Ryan's order shortly after midnight on May 20 and administered morphine to comfort her. She died minutes later.

Many of Powell's guards say she was given water, though inmates observing Powell in the cage say she was not and that her cries for water were mocked. Why she remained in the cage for so long is not adequately explained. Nor are the actions of a prison psychologist who supposedly ordered Powell "placed in a recreation enclosure" because Powell had threatened suicide if she remained in her cell.

Powell was on heavy psychiatric meds during what was supposed to have been a 27-month stint for prostitution, and at least some of the corrections staff knew the meds made her even more sensitive to heat. Nevertheless, she was left in the hot cage without shoes on her feet for hours.

County Medical Examiner Dr. Mark Fisch­ione listed the manner of death an "accident" in Powell's autopsy. Repeated requests to the Medical Examiner's Office to interview Fischione on his findings were not granted by press time.

I want to ask Dr. Fischione a question that advocate Donna Hamm of Middle Ground Prison Reform raised when I called her about the news that the ADC had announced that 16 employees would be disciplined as a result of the department's review. Three of the 16 were fired. Two of the 16 were forced to resign. All because of an "accident."

"Everything we know about this incident seems to point to . . . negligent homicide," Hamm told me. "It's very hard to imagine how Michael Jackson's death is ruled a homicide and this one is ruled an accident."

I don't get it, either. Of course, if you look to Governor Jan Brewer's office for an explanation, everything's hunky-dory. Though Ryan remains interim ADC director, Brewer's flack, Paul Senseman, explained that the Governor's Office still plans to submit Darth Ryan's name to the Legislature for confirmation as ADC honcho. Senseman tut-tutted the mere suggestion that Ryan should resign his position. Ryan must feel relieved.

Still, a vote of confidence from the first mate on a doomed political skiff isn't worth that much. Does anyone really think Brewer will run, win the GOP primary, and beat her likely opponent, now Attorney General Terry Goddard? If so, I've got a map to the Lost Dutchman gold mine I'm selling on eBay.

The editorial endorsement of the Arizona Republic is worth a lot more to Ryan's career, one already tainted by his employment by the U.S. State Department in rebuilding the Iraqi prison system. Though he claimed he knew noth-ink, noth-ink about the Abu Ghraib shenanigans — not unlike the Sergeant Schultz character on Hogan's Heroes — Ryan was in Iraq while some of the notorious abuses were ongoing.

Take Ryan at his word that he knew nothing and, still, you'd think he'd be shy about trumpeting his time as an administrator in Iraq. He's not. He lists his former job as "assistant program manager for the Department of Justice overseeing the Iraqi Prison System" right on his bio on the ADC Web site. The same Web site that labels him ADC "director" instead of "interim director."

Perhaps you could chalk that up to the "grit" that the Republic's nameless scribe finds so endearing.

"Charles Ryan aired a lot of dirty department laundry," the editorial says of the ADC report on Powell's death. "Tough as that might have been, good will come of his grit."

Grit, eh? Where I come from, they call it shamelessness.


I spent some time the other day speaking with the Reverend Mike Senger of the Arizona based, neo-Zoroastrian Church of Cognizance, which regards marijuana as its sacred herb — one that "increases cognizance, promotes tranquility, extends longevity, [and] promotes health and welfare."

It would have been ideal to speak with the church's founders, Dan and Mary Quaintance of Safford, Arizona, who started the cheeba-lovin' religion in the early '90s. But, sadly, the 50-something grandparents are doing time at two different federal prisons in California for training a courier to transport Mary Jane by the van-load from New Mexico. That's where they and the courier were caught with 172 pounds of pot.

According to Senger, who said he's the church's "attorney general," both Dan and Mary's convictions are on appeal.

"They both lived in absolute poverty," he claimed. "No one was making any money. There was no trafficking."

Indeed, Senger said the church mostly relied on low-value skunk weed for its needs. Still, it was easier to have it trucked in than to grow it, as the church needed lots of pot for its members. There are several members in Arizona and about 130 worldwide, says Senger. Mostly, CoC adherents eat the ganja, from which they supposedly obtain the health benefits. These benefits include nutritional value, longevity, and protection from most forms of cancer. Not to mention the ability to consume massive amounts of Funyuns and drink gallons of water at one sitting.

Okay, I kid about the Funyuns.

For Senger and the CoC-ers who aren't imprisoned, it's not about getting baked, said Senger. Though church membership has its rewards.

"Most of us, we're consuming so much cannabis that we're high all the time, you know?" Senger explained via phone from Florence, where he lives. "We've got to where we're keeping our systems filled with cannabis . . . But we're not intoxicated. In fact, we're against intoxication."

Hmmm? Being high all the time, he said, is about maintaining an elevated level of consciousness. It's about spirituality and healthier living through ingesting bud.

"This was God's gift to man, the cannabis plant," preached Senger. "It's supposed to meet all of our needs because it can."

Sounds hella-better than the unfermented grape juice and lumps of Wonder Bread they gave out during Methodist communion when I was a tyke.

Though some religions are allowed sacramental use of such controlled substances as peyote, the federal government has yet to allow the imprisoned Quaintances and their followers a religious exemption for reefer.

Similarly, the Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled in the State of Arizona vs. Danny Ray Hardesty that there's no exemption under state law for the religious use of cannabis. See, Hardesty was a member of the Church of Cognizance, and he was busted driving in the Coconino National Forest while tokin' a doobie. A passenger in his van had 14 grams in a daypack, which Hardesty caught the blame for.

The Supreme court decision stated that Hardesty and his lawyers had conceded that the state had a compelling interest to regulate ganja but that Hardesty's religious freedom allowed him to use it whenever and wherever he wanted.

See, Arizona has a law called the Free Exercise of Religion Act, which protects "Arizona's citizens' rights to exercise their religious beliefs free from undue government interference." Under FERA, the government can restrict someone's religion, but it can use only the "the least restrictive means" to do so.

The state argued in Hardesty that the "least restrictive means" of burdening Hardesty's religious beliefs was a total ban on pot. The Arizona Supremes agreed.

"Hardesty claims an unlimited right to use marijuana when and where he chooses, and in whatever amount he sees fit," wrote Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch. "In the context of this case, no means less restrictive than a ban will achieve the state's conceded interests."

As Berch points out, one of these compelling interests is the "public safety concern posed by unlimited use, particularly by those driving motor vehicles."

And this is where the chief justice is dead wrong. The "least restrictive means" in the case of marijuana use by a religion, would be the same as for alcohol use by a religion, or anyone else for that matter: a ban on driving while intoxicated.

Since the end of Prohibition, the government has regulated the sale, production, distribution, and use of alcohol in myriad ways, short of an outright ban.

Driving drunk is illegal. So's public intoxication. But if you're of age, you can pretty much get snockered all you want otherwise.

So why can't marijuana be treated the same way?

Wouldn't this be the "least restrictive means" of regulating the use of pot? Remember, many Christian churches use vino in their services. And you could, hypothetically, belong to a religion that allows you to imbibe 'til plastered. That is, as long as you don't get in your four-runner and decide to roar up the freeway.

Sure, Hardesty was not the perfect test case by any means, but as marijuana use becomes more accepted, regulated, and permitted — the treatment of groups such as the CoC, and people like the Quaintances and Hardesty, will come to seem more and more backward, heavy-handed, and regrettable.

Senger informed me that Hardesty (who received only probation with his conviction) has exiled himself to a more civilized part of the country — California. He's become part of what Senger calls the "green rush" of folks relocating to Cali to take advantage of the state's liberal medical-marijuana laws.

"Everybody's going out to California right now because anybody can get a card, a recommendation from a doctor [to ingest marijuana] — for writers block, insomnia, you name it," Senger said.

Local activists are gathering signatures to put a medical-marijuana initiative on the Arizona ballot in 2010, though Senger laments that the proposed law's not nearly as lax as California's and so will probably be of no use to someone like him, who is in good health.

Maybe marijuana ain't the cure-all for the world's ills — like certain stoners, hippies, and guys like Senger think it is. But in a state where nearly every nitwit can own a handgun, why can't people be allowed to possess pot? Seems like having the latter makes you less likely to use the former — whether you use it for worship or just for doing your own private Cheech and Chong impersonation.

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.