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Oppression on the Rise in Arizona

By O'Neil Stough

Arizona has joined the ranks of many other prisons nationwide where oppressive and tried-and-failed barbaric methods of the distant past are being re-instituted.

Governor Fife Symington, up for reelection this year, and Director of Corrections, Sam Lewis whose experience is in law enforcement and kowtowing, both with no experience in corrections, have spearheaded the drive to make the Arizona prison system an environment of suffering, rage and cruelty.

At a recent Republican fund raising dinner, Symington, with Lewis in the wings, announced a new "get tough" program. Regarding one of the facilities being planned, Symington bragged of the cruelty, "It will be a hellhole no man will ever want to go." Lewis boasted later that "troublemakers" (guess who defines that?) will be forced to perform hard labor in the hot Arizona desert without benefit of tools. "They will literally be breaking rocks with their bare hands," Lewis stated. Such "leadership" from the top has given rise to an increase in threats and abuse of prisoners by guards who perceive the "get-tough" philosophy as a green light to act out their basest hostilities.

Lewis has consistently demonstrated he has little regard for the suffering and abuse of prisoners. He has further shown little understanding of law other than the street cop mentality of using power and brute force, rather than reason or intelligence, to operate the prison system.

He is facing no less than two contempt of court violations for refusing to obey court orders aimed at the prisons. At a recent hearing regarding the Casey v. Lewis case designed to provide, among other things, proper law libraries in the state's 29 institutions, and access to the courts, his demeanor was defiant and smug. He acknowledged he told staff not to worry about any fines that might be assessed against them for contempt for refusing to follow court orders in Casey. He informed staff any fines would be paid by the state.

During the hearing, Special Master Dan Pachoda, assigned to conduct the hearing, said that Lewis was being "contemptuous" and reminded the prison director that he, not Lewis, was running the hearing.

In a separate contempt hearing, Lewis was severely scolded by the Court for attempting to impose an adult magazine ban. Any magazines which showed exposed breasts, whether Playboy, Easy Rider or National Geographic, were slated to be taken in a massive shakedown, and forever banned. This action was in direct defiance of the 1973 Hook decree which affirmed 1st Amendment rights to receive such publications. Attorney John P. Franks, on behalf of plaintiffs in Hook, called Lewis a "tinhorn dictator." "I've never seen a grosser defiance of the federal court in all my life," stated Frank to U.S. District Judge Carl Muecke. Three days before the ban he was forced to rescind the directive. He has vowed to reverse the 1973 ruling.

Lewis recently took hot pots, and the foodstuff for them, from the inmate store. Other store items, not only those for hot pot use, have been severely reduced. From a list that was once four pages long, it is now one page. Prisoners in large numbers now go hungry, and irritated, between sparse prison meals.

Also banned is personal clothing prisoners could obtain with their own funds such as t-shirts, underwear, socks and blue jeans. Now only used and/or soiled state-issue of these very same items is allowed and at a cost to the taxpayer.

Fans, which prisoners bought or family sent them, were also recently banned. In the intensely hot and humid conditions of Arizona, fans are needed ventilation in many of the state's institutions where ventilation is poor, at best.

Following this, CD players and tape recorders were banned. Any radio with a cassette player taping capability is now not allowed. This poses a tremendous strain on those who are illiterate (roughly 72%), whose only means of communication with family was a correspondence tape.

Bills have been taken before the legislature to charge prisoners for medical care and one bill, which failed, sought to charge prisoners for electricity. For the few who have jobs, the average pay is 20 cents an hour.

The system is destined to reach epidemic overcrowding as the new "no parole" law took effect in January, 1994. Anyone sentenced after then must serve 85% of a mandatory sentence before consideration for parole. Another parole related law now in effect mandates that a parole panel must vote unanimously, not just a majority, for parole or it is denied.

Under Lewis, halfway houses have been closed and most all programs which aided a prisoners rehabilitation or reintegration into society have either been discontinued or severely cut back.

The claim by Lewis and Symington are that these so called "get-tough" measures somehow deter crime or criminals. No data whatsoever, past or present, supports this supposition. Quite the contrary, ill treatment breeds ill behavior.

Some ranking staff have resigned in protest at the barbaric and cruel policies being implemented. Escapes are rising in response to intolerable conditions, hunger strikes have taken place and the early signs of mass protests, and revolt, are emerging. Human suffering in a barren and desolate environment breeds hostility and rage. Sooner or later it will seek expression such as the massive riots of the late 1960's and early 1970's in prisons nationally; a fact Symington and Lewis obviously lack the experience to understand.

While such tough talk and actions sounds good to a fed-up public in these troubled times, it rings hollow. It is counterproductive, dangerous, expensive and a waste of hard-earned tax dollars. More prison cells do not a safer community make. And, for those who occupy those cells, harsher and tougher policies and restrictions do not reform, but rather, deform.

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