A community resource for monitoring, navigating, surviving, and dismantling the prison industrial complex in Arizona.
Established: July 18, 2009
Editor: Margaret Jean Plews
This site is to monitor conditions in Arizona’s criminal justice system, as well as offer some critical analysis of the prison industrial complex from a prison abolitionist/anarchist’s perspective. If you’re unfamiliar with prison abolition, check out Critical Resistance. I’m just a freelance writer and human rights activist, and have no legal training.
Arizona Prison Watch VIOLENCE and SAFETY blog posts
Arizona Prison Watch HEALTH CARE posts
- Corizons Deliberate Indifference: KNOW YOUR RIGHTS!
- Corizon’s Deliberate Indifference: Prisoners and Families Fight Back
- The ADA and Disabled Prisoners: RESOURCES
- “DEATH SENTENCE”: KPNX’s Halloran and whistleblower expose depth of negligence at Corizon/AZ DOC.
- PARSONS v RYAN: AZ DOC health care class action settled!
Saturday, April 4, 2015
Help end the solitary hell of autistic teen, Jessie B.
For a little over a year now, I’ve been corresponding with a young prisoner in Joe Arpaio’s Estrella Jail, a now-17-year old girl by the name of Jessie. For virtually all of that time, over 400 days now, Jessie’s been in solitary confinement (aka “close custody”), allowed out of her cage only one or two hours day for showers, phone calls, and an occasional stretch. She leaves her part of the jail only if in shackles and chains, returning, always, to her private hell through the trauma of body cavity/strip searches. That’s the only physical human contact she’s allowed to have – being handled like a piece of meat.
For what is called her educational programming Jessie gets chained to a desk and instructed in things like Algebra two hours a week. According to a couple of the youth, kids can only take “more fun” subjects like science if they behave themselves. That must mean that the math is the punishment for those kids who are considered problematic – and this is what they do for a child who is entitled to special educational services under IDEA. Jessie, you see, is autistic and has a major mental illness. She’s no longer very interested in school, either.
When disciplined for behavior arising out of her disabling psychiatric conditions, Jessie – already in isolation – loses her access to phone calls and visits. Combined with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO)’s frequent refusal to allow her access to writing implements, this means she is nearly completely cut off from those who care about her during times of crisis. Jessie also loses the right to purchase items like toiletries and food from the inmate store – meaning the only sustenance she gets is that which is served to her by the MCSO – like stale sack lunches, moldy broccoli, and unidentifiable meat-substitute slop (with rocks thrown in for fun). The food there sometimes understandably frightens her.
Despite being a victim of serious sexual abuse and exploitation before her arrest, and landing in jail on the heels of an extremely traumatic event (the death of her abuser at her hands), Jessie has had very little mental health treatment or counseling in custody short of “competency restoration proceedings” which are only designed to assure that she understands the legal charges she’s facing and can assist in her own defense.
Medical care has also been shoddy – her requests to have headaches and dizzy spells evaluated have been minimized or ignored since she arrived there. She was abruptly taken off her psych meds one week before her trial was originally to start, with no explanation or response to her complaints about withdrawal symptoms.
Jessie does have one alternative to sitting in her solitary hell: when she can’t deal with it anymore and gets sent to the mental health unit, she’s stripped naked and left alone in a cold cell with only a smock to wear and suicide blanket to cuddle. She isn’t allowed to make phone calls or have a shower, even if there for a week – no one is. Apparently, one must sit in their stink on suicide watch until they spontaneously feel better about themselves, or at least swear not to do themselves in while in custody.
This all amounts to cruel and unusual punishment being dished out to a kid who is supposedly still presumed innocent. And she’s not the only one – there’s also a few more I hear from, and god knows how many more kids in that hole who I will never hear from. In fact, no one may ever hear from any of these children about their experiences behind bars if we don’t make it a point to try to reach them.
Please stop and read about Jessie’s story, then go here to see what you can do to help. We need to spread the word about the injustice of both her confinement and her prosecution.
Thanks to Megan Cassidy at the Arizona Republic for this well-done article this week.
Jessica Burlew was 16 in January 2014, when police say the blue-haired Glendale girl admitted to killing 43-year-old Jason Ash in a sex act gone awry.
Burlew was 27 years younger than Ash and a year and a half shy of her 18th birthday, the age of consent in Arizona.
For those reasons, among others, a group of local advocates have started questioning how prosecutors are treating Burlew’s case because they believe she should be defined as a sexual victim by the same prosecutors who are charging her with second-degree murder.
A 43-year-old could be eligible for a class 6 felony if caught having sex with a 16-year-old.
RELATED: Glendale girl faces trial as adult in death of man during sex
The advocates are asking County Attorney Bill Montgomery for a “humane” plea agreement.
The ad hoc organization, Free Jessie B Support Group, has also hurled criticisms against a host of state and county agencies, alleging a systemic failure to protect a minor with a history of behavioral issues and mental illness.
“There are so many human-rights aspects to Jessie’s case,” Burlew supporter Beth Payne wrote in an e-mailed statement. “She is a juvenile being tried as an adult, a juvenile being held in solitary confinement, a mentally ill person being prosecuted instead of given access to mental health care, a survivor of sexual violence and exploitation [and] a child who was supposed to be in the custody of the Department of Child Services and was the victim of a sexual predator.”
But the stacking of the laws in Burlew’s case allows for little latitude prior to her day in court. As of March 20, prosecutors have not offered a plea agreement.
If convicted in a trial, Burlew faces 10 to 25 years in prison.
Maricopa County Attorney spokesman Jerry Cobb said Burlew’s defense is free to raise these issues in trial, and said mitigating factors may come into play during sentencing.
Further, he said, Burlew cannot be labeled a “victim” if Ash has not been convicted of a sexual crime. Given that he is dead, Cobb said, allegations are immaterial.
Cobb defended the state’s charging decision, which by definition alleges “extreme indifference to human life,” causing death without premeditation.
“We felt that the facts and circumstances surrounding his incident support a charge of second-degree murder,” he said.
Glendale police arrived at Burlew’s mother’s home on Jan. 18, 2014, to find a dead Ash, lying on Burlew’s bed with an electrical cord wrapped around his neck, according to the police report. Razor cuts marked his face and arms.
It was Burlew’s mother, Tracey Woodside, who had called police and identified Ash by his first name. He is described as Burlew’s “boyfriend” in the police report, although her supporters have since taken issue with that assessment, given Burlew’s age.
By the time police arrived, Burlew was nowhere to be found. Woodside told police her daughter had phoned her, telling her Ash was dead and saying to her it was “bad.”
Woodside returned to her apartment to find Burlew and Ash, and called 911 from a neighbor’s house. It was at this time Burlew, who had already been reported missing from a group home in Phoenix, disappeared again.
Police soon tracked the girl to a neighboring apartment after she had sneaked by police disguised in a burka, the report states.
Burlew quickly admitted to causing Ash’s death, but maintained it was an accident, according to the police report. She told her mother Ash did not use the “safety word” the two had agreed upon, and she told police the strangulation was common and consensual in their sexual relationship.
The teen explained the incisions as initially an attempt to revive Ash, but told police the cutting evolved into a mechanism to relieve the stress of the situation. Burlew also admitted to cutting herself, police said. Paperwork found in Burlew’s bedroom substantiated this claim, acknowledging an incident of self-mutilation.
In a statement released to the media, Woodside said her daughter had been plagued with mental-health issues. Psychiatric treatment, including therapy, various medications and stints in residential treatment centers, started when she was 4 years old.
Supporters say Burlew has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and autism.
Burlew was in protective custody under Arizona’s Department of Child Safety, but that she had run away from the DCS group home shortly before the incident, according to her advocates. Her case manager’s attempts to retrieve her were scant and futile, her supporters say.
A DCS spokesman for confirmed Burlew was previously under the department’s care, but declined to comment further, citing pending court action.
“… [T]he system has failed us,” Woodside said in the statement. “I failed Jessica by listening to and doing what mental-health professionals told me to do.”
Laws fall into place
A group of local advocates have started questioning how prosecutors are treating Jessie Burlew’s case. (Photo: Courtesy of Free Jessie B Support Group)
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a succession of findings in the past several years that bode in favor of juvenile offenders. The decisions effectively banned capital punishment and mandatory life sentences for juveniles, and prohibited life sentences for non-homicide offenses.
Rationale was often based on emerging science involving the development of adolescent brains and an “evolving standards of decency” on what constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
So far, Burlew’s age, legal status as a victim and mental health conditions have provided little assistance to her case. She has been held in Estrella Women’s Jail, under solitary 23-hour lockdown, since her arrest more than a year ago while awaiting a trial that has been pushed back from March to July.
Arizona prosecutors are required charge juveniles who are 15 or older as adults if they are accused of a violent felony, including murder.
Burlew underwent a hearing this fall, where a judge found her competent to stand trial.
And Maricopa County Sheriff’s officials say the teen’s intake screening classified her as a “closed custody” inmate.
MCSO spokesman Joaquin Enriquez said he could not disclose the reason Burlew was placed in closed custody. In general, he said, factors may include a history of institutionalized behavior, the nature of the charges or for fear that inmates will harm themselves or others.
The conditions of Burlew’s confinement garnered traction at the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. Representatives confirmed they sent a letter to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office but declined to comment on the case.
Burlew is not accepting interviews and her public defender has not responded to requests for interview.
Larry Hammond, an Arizona criminal defense attorney with experience in juvenile matters, said prosecutors should carefully review juvenile homicide cases, especially when there is reason to believe the minor has been “compromised mentally.”
Hammond, who was briefed on the case but is not involved in it, believes mitigating factors should be considered at the front end of a case.
“If they are potentially schizophrenic, or if they have some other psychosis, those other conditions in a developing brain are always more problematic,” he said. “Good prosecutors should know that.”