Arizona’s prisons director has suspended the use of all outdoor holding cells while crews retrofit them to provide shade and water in the wake of an inmate’s heat-related death.
Marcia Powell, 48, died last week after being left in an unshaded enclosure on a day when temperatures topped 100 degrees.
Prisons spokesman Barrett Marson told The Associated Press May 29 that workers have already begun retrofitting 233 outdoor cells at 10 state prisons. He was unsure how long it would take.
The chain-link cells are used to house inmates who are being transferred between various sections of the prison. Powell was placed in one at the Perryville prison in Goodyear after seeing a psychologist. She had been serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution.
Donna Hamm, director of Tempe-based Middle Ground Prison Reform, said shade and water upgrades might have helped prevent Powell’s death but won’t address broader structural problems.
“It’s a larger problem of placing human beings in cages that creates the difficulty,” Hamm said. “When they’re unsupervised outdoors, I’m not sure that putting shade over it resolves the problem.”
Three prison employees remain on paid administrative leave while criminal investigators probe the incident, Marson said.
Powell had been in an outdoor cell for nearly four hours when she was found unconscious May 19. She died at a hospital the following day after prisons director Charles Ryan authorized doctors to remove her from life support.
The prison’s internal policy says Powell should have been removed from the cell after two hours. Under the policy, corrections officers were supposed to document checking on her condition every 30 minutes.
Prison officials refuse to disclose whether Powell was checked on, saying the information is part of their investigation.
Ryan has said Powell’s cell was 20 yards from a control room from where officers were supposed to be watching her.
The investigators’ report, which Ryan initially said would be released last week, isn’t expected for another week or two, according to Marson.
The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office conducted an autopsy on Powell last week and said a report would be released in about a month.
Powell did not list a next of kin on her intake paperwork, and prison officials have been unable to locate her family.
She ran away from home at age 15 and was in and out of prison for decades, court records show. Her record includes convictions for prostitution, drug possession and assault.
At the time of her sentencing last summer, records show Powell had been diagnosed as bipolar and was taking a medication often used to treat schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses.
Nathan Foundas, Powell’s public defender, wrote in a July 2008 sentencing recommendation that Powell couldn’t afford food or clothes and had turned to prostitution in desperation.
“Marcia is guilty of being a drug addict and a prostitute, two labels that are usually attached to individuals that have no support system, have been in and out of jail/prison, and have given up on their own lives,” Foundas wrote.