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Marcia Powell's Death Unavenged: County Attorney Passes on Prosecuting Prison Staff

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has chosen not to prosecute Arizona Department of Corrections staff in the death of inmate Marcia Powell.

Powell, 48, died May 20, 2009, after being kept in a human cage in Goodyear's Perryville Prison for at least four hours in the blazing Arizona sun. This, despite a prison policy limiting such outside confinement to a maximum of two hours.

The county medical examiner found the cause of death to be due to complications from heat exposure. Her core body temperature upon examination was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. She suffered burns and blisters all over her body.

Witnesses say she was repeatedly denied water by corrections officers, though the c.o.'s deny this. The weather the day she collapsed from the heat (May 19 -- she died in the early morning hours of May 20) arched just above a 107 degree high.

According to a 3,000 page report released by the ADC, she pleaded to be taken back inside, but was ignored. Similarly, she was not allowed to use the restroom. When she was found unconscious, her body was covered with excrement from soiling herself.

Powell, who was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution, actually expired after being transported to West Valley Hospital, where acting ADC Director Charles Ryan made the decision to have her life support suspended.

(Ryan lacked the authority to do this, but that's another story, which you can read about, here.)

ADC conducted its own criminal investigation into Powell's agonizing demise. The information I have indicates that ADC submitted its conclusions to the county attorney earlier this year. (Please see update below.) ADC was seeking charges of negligent homicide against at least seven c.o.'s, as well as related charges against other prison staff.

Why didn't the county attorney's office pursue those charges? Apparently, they didn't think they could prevail in court.

County attorney spokesman Bill Fitzgerald issued the following terse statement.

"There is insufficient evidence to go forward with a prosecution against any of the named individuals," he e-mailed me, declining to elaborate further. 

Donna Hamm of the advocacy group Middle Ground Prison Reform wasn't buying it.

"Having read the bulk of those 3,000 pages of reports," she told me, "if someone in a prosecutorial position can't find a crime in those pages, they have absolutely no credibility in my opinion."

Hamm noted that guards passed Powell several times throughout her stay in the cage, and that some mocked her pleas for water. As for c.o. claims that Powell was given water, Hamm countered that Powell's eyes "were as dry as parchment," and that the autopsy results show there was no sign of hydration.

Hamm was incredulous that the county attorney couldn't find enough evidence to bring charges.

"It's just beyond comprehension," she stated. "This is the same office that has prosecuted mothers who left their babies in a couple of inches of water to go outside and take a cell phone call or look in the mail." 

She also cited the case of "Buffalo Soldier" Charles Long, who was prosecuted by the MCAO for negligent homicide in the 2001 death of a kid who had enrolled in his program for troubled teens and died after being exposed to the heat and put in a bath, where he inhaled water.

The ADC did make some reforms in the wake of Powell's death. It was discovered that the cages were being used to control unruly prisoners, and the ADC claims this practice has stopped. However, Hamm says she has uncovered a case of a man in a Tucson facility who, earlier this year, was held all day and overnight in an outside cage.

Some 16 prison employees were sanctioned in one way or another as a result of the Powell incident, and some were fired. But Hamm says she believes some of those sanctioned have been reinstated.

The outdoor cages are still in use, but have been retrofitted to provide shade, misters, water stations, and benches, which, ironically, Hamm says are metal, and would thus soak up the heat. She's toured ADC facilities to see the redone cages, and admits that changes are positive, but too late to save Powell's life, obviously.

"All the retrofitting in the world is worthless if the staff doesn't follow the policy," she insisted.

Powell had been diagnosed as mentally ill, and was on more than one psychotropic drug, drugs that increased her sensitivity to heat, sunlight and lack of water. All the more reason, according to Hamm, that prison staff should be held accountable.

The only next of kin that was located for Powell was an aged, adoptive mother in California, who had not had contact with Powell for years, and did not want to take possession of the remains.

So, with the help of Hamm and others, Powell's ashes were interred last year at Phoenix's Shadow Rock Church of Christ.

Brophy College Preparatory School also dedicated a plaque to Powell on school grounds this year.

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But with no one with standing to bring a federal lawsuit (Hamm says the deadline for a state lawsuit has expired), and with the MCAO unwilling to bring a case against those responsible for Powell's well-being, there looks to be no justice for the schizophrenic deceased woman.

I asked Hamm what this means for the case.

"It means they've gotten away with the most colossal example of brutality I have seen against a female prisoner in the history of the Arizona Department of Corrections," remarked Hamm, adding, "And they got off scot-free."

Update, 9/1/10 2:29 PM: ADC spokesman Barrett Marson told me today that the ADC submitted its criminal investigation to the MCAO back on August 20, 2009. He said he did not know if the ADC asked for charges on certain employees.

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