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Corrections disciplines 16 over death of inmate in outdoor enclosure

The Arizona Department of Corrections has disciplined, dismissed or accepted resignations from 16 employees in connection with the death of a female inmate left in an outdoor enclosure and a strategy that used such enclosures as an alternative to force with prisoners, the agency’s interim director said Sept. 22.

Calling it “the most significant example of abuse that I’m aware of that an inmate had endured,” Charles Ryan said his department has imposed limits on how long a person can be kept outside and how often prison staff must check on them.

“Frankly that’s just unconscionable,” Ryan said at a late afternoon news conference. “That is an absolute failure on the part of the department and its employees regardless of the behavior of the actions of the inmate.”

Marcia Powell, 48, who was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville in Goodyear, died after being left for nearly four hours in an uncovered enclosure while awaiting transfer to a mental health unit. An autopsy revealed that she died from a combination of dehydration and heat.

Ryan said an administrative investigation, separate from a continuing criminal investigation, revealed that another inmate who had barricaded herself in her cell was put in an outdoor enclosure for 20 hours three days before Powell’s death as part of a “wait-them-out” strategy intended to cut down on the use of force in such situations. He called it “an unacceptable security practice that will not be tolerated.”

Those disciplined include a deputy warden and prison psychologist who were allowed to resign rather than be dismissed and two guards and a lieutenant who were dismissed, Ryan said. A supervising officer was demoted to guard, 10 employees received suspensions ranging from 40 to 80 hours and two more employees who are on medical leave will be disciplined when they return, he said.

He declined to provide the names of disciplined employees.

Ryan said outdoor enclosures now have shade screens, misting machines, benches and water supplies and can’t be used for more than an hour without approval from superiors. No inmate may be kept in outdoor enclosures longer than two hours, and staff must check on inmates every 30 minutes, he said.

Donna Leone Hamm of Middle Ground Prison Reform, an inmate advocacy organization, said it’s good to see officials making changes based on Powell’s death, but she noted that prison staff failed to adhere to policies in place at that time. She said the effectiveness of the new policies depends on whether they’re followed properly.

“It still gets hot in Arizona, even under a shaded cover,” Hamm said.

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