About 200 people packed the pews at Encanto Community Church today at noon for a memorial service for Marcia Powell, the 48-year-old inmate at Goodyear's Perryville Prison who died early the morning of May 20. This was following her confinement the day before in an outdoor cage where she endured temperatures of more than 107 degrees for at least four hours before collapsing.
The service was presided over by Rev. Liana Rowe, and featured prayers, hymns, and speakers such as criminal defense advocate Jameson Johnson and Middle Ground Prison Reform's Donna Hamm. Powell's body is still being held by the Medical Examiner pending an investigation into next of kin by Powell's court-appointed guardian, the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary. Instead of a casket, there were two photos of Powell on the dais next to a tall lit candle.
The most notable attendee was Arizona Department of Corrections' Interim Director Charles Ryan, whom I questioned outside the church following the service. It's Ryan who made the decision to discontinue Powell's life support after she had been transported to West Valley Hospital.
Friday, the ADC announced that the use of outside enclosures like the one Powell was caged in would be suspended until they were retrofitted with shade and a water supply. Ryan went even further today when asked about the possibility of doing away with the cages altogether.
"After conferring [yesterday] with the Governor's office and the Governor," said Ryan. "We have decided we are going to discontinue using the holding enclosures, in spite of consideration for retrofitting with shade or water. We will no longer use them."
Ryan said Powell was being transferred to an observation cell when she was left in the outside cage. In the future, Ryan said such transfers will be taken to a holding area inside a building that's climate controlled, so that the weather is no longer an issue.
Regarding Ryan's decision to pull the plug on Powell while she was at West Valley Hospital on life support, Ryan said he did so on the advice of Powell's doctors, who told him it would be inhumane to do otherwise. He also indicated that at the time he made the decision, he was unaware that Powell had a guardian.
"The search of the records at the department, at the institution file, and the electronic record did not reveal any guardians," claimed Ryan. "There was no legal guardian known to the department at the time the decision was made.
"The only person who was listed was a friend, and the attempt to find the friend led to a disconnected telephone number and to an address that was not occupied."
But why pull the plug on Powell just hours after she had been admitted, when another day or so and a little more digging might have revealed the fiduciary's guardianship?
"The attending physician in the emergency room," explained Ryan, "in consultation with the department's doctors, clearly indicated that there was no possibility that life could be sustained, that she was terminal. And the doctor reiterated several times it was inhumane to continue to sustain her life on life support."
During the services for Powell, Donna Hamm restated her call for an independent investigation into Powell's death, and said she was calling on the U.S. Justice Department to look into it. However, Ryan said he retained confidence in ADC's criminal investigations unit to look into the matter, though that unit ultimately reports to him.
"There has been an autopsy completed," said Ryan. "The results of the toxicology report will not be known, I think, for about six weeks...The investigation itself...will be completed before then. It is my intention once that...portion of the investigation is completed, I intend to have it reviewed for completeness and objectivity by another agency, and very likely that would be or start with the Department of Public Safety."
I also asked Ryan why the department switched out photos of Powell on its Web site, to leave a more flattering image of Powell online. He said the reason was to show "another picture of her" while she was incarcerated. That's a no-brainer of course. Why the department felt the need to show another photo of Powell is a question Ryan successfully tiptoed around.
In addition, Ryan conceded that he was the "Interim Director" of ADC, not its confirmed "Director," as he's mentioned as being on the ADC Web site. He ascribed the mislabeling to an "oversight."
I have to give Ryan points for attending the service to begin with and for allowing me to interview him. However, I still find troubling his statement that there was no record of Powell's guardianship in the ADC's files. I was able to obtain a record of Powell's guardianship simply by consulting the clerk of superior court's records.
Also, I think that if Powell had been kept alive a little longer, it would not have taken much digging to find paperwork related to the guardian's appointment. Indeed, at one point in the court record, the court is officially advised by Powell's guardian that she has a new address; i.e., Perryville Prison. Isn't the ADC supposed to have access to all such court records related to an inmate?
Presumably, it is the guardian that had the legal authority to pull Powell's plug (assuming next of kin could not be located), not Ryan. And Ryan's department should have known there was a guardian. How ADC didn't know, when a review of the clerk of court's records reveals the existence of a guardianship for Powell, requires some explanation.
More on the service itself in next week's Bird column. I will say this, as sad as Powell's death was, I find it heartening that many in Phoenix do care about the demise of this woman, one of society's forgotten. And if that concern persists, perhaps a repeat of this incident will be less likely in the future.
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