The summer of 2009 hadn't even begun when Marcia Powell, a 48-year old inmate at Arizona’s Perryville Prison, was baked to death. Powell, whom court records show had a history of schizophrenia, substance abuse, and mild mental retardation, was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution. At about 11 a.m. on May 19, a day when the Arizona sun had driven the temperature to 108 degrees, she was parked outdoors in an unroofed, wire-fenced holding cell while awaiting transfer to another part of the prison. A deputy warden and two guards had been stationed in a control center 20 yards away, but nearly four hours had passed when she was found collapsed on the floor of the human cage. Doctors at a local hospital pronounced Powell comatose from heat stroke, and she died later that night after being taken off life support. Two local churches stepped in to provide a proper funeral and burial.
Arizona Department of Corrections director Charles Ryan said the guards had been suspended pending a criminal investigation. But just yesterday, the Maricopa County Medical Examiner ruled the death an accident, caused by "complications of hyperthermia due to environmental heat exposure." This despite the fact that Powell had blistering and first and second degree "thermal injuries" on face, arms, and upper body.
Ryan also expressed “condolences to Ms. Powell’s family and loved ones”–a strange statement, considering Ryan had made the decision to quickly pull the plug on his comatose prisoner because, he said, no next of kin could be found. In fact, as Stephen Lemons of the Phoenix New Times has reported, Powell was judged an “incapacitated adult” and placed under public guardianship–but her guardians were not consulted before the ADC elected to let her die. Lemons also noted some unsavory chapters in Ryan’s recent career:
Ryan’s own bio on the ADC Web site touts that he was “assistant program manager for the Department of Justice overseeing the Iraqi Prison System for almost four years.” Ryan was contracted by the DOJ to help rebuild Iraqi prisons, one of those being the notorious Abu Ghraib.
Following Powell’s death, Ryan banned most uses of unshaded outdoor holding cells in Arizona, except in “extraordinary circumstances.” Most Southern states already restrict their use. But baking in the sun is only one of many ways to die in America’s prisons in the summertime. Recent years have seen scattered reports of heat-related prison deaths in California and Texas, among others. The prevalence of mental illness among the victims may be linked to anti-psychotic drugs, which raise the body temperature and cause dehydration, and at the same time have a tranquilizing effect that may mask thirst.
In 2006, 21-year-old Timothy Souders, another mentally ill prisoner, died of heat exhaustion and dehydration at a Jackson, Michigan prison during an August heat wave. For the four days prior to his death, Souders had been shackled to a cement slab in solitary confinement because he had been acting up. That entire period was captured on surveillance videotapes, which according to news reports clearly showed his mental and physical deterioration.