Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Arizona Prisoner, Abandoned in Outdoor Cage, Bakes to Death

On May 19, 2009, Arizona state prisoner Marcia Powell, 48, collapsed after being left in an unshaded outdoor chain-link cage for four hours under a scorching summer sun. She later died. Temperatures at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville had reached as high as 107 degrees that afternoon. The guards responsible for watching Powell as she slowly baked to death sat in a control room just 20 yards away.

“It is intended to be temporary,” Arizona Dept. of Corrections (ADC) interim director Charles Ryan said of the outdoor cages. “It is not intended to be a place where [prisoners] are held for an inordinate amount of time.” However good those intentions, they did little to prevent Marcia Powell’s senseless death.

Powell, who was mentally ill, had been placed in the outdoor cage while she was waiting to be transferred to another cell. According to prison regulations, prisoners are not to be left in the cages for more than two hours and should continuously receive water; further, the cages are not to be used as punishment. ADC officials insisted Powell was provided with water, though that was disputed by other prisoners who said guards either ignored or mocked her when she pleaded for something to drink.

Once prison employees realized that Powell had collapsed and was unconscious, she was transferred to West Valley Hospital and placed on life support. She had first and second-degree burns and blisters, and a core body temperature of at least 108 degrees. Doctors were unsure of her exact temperature because their thermometers did not go any higher. Mere hours later, after a cursory investigation determined that Powell had no next of kin, Ryan decided to pull the plug and end her life.

On June 5, 2009, Roger Coventry, an investigator with the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary’s office, informed court officials that he had found Powell’s adoptive mother, Joanne Buck, who lived in La Quinta, California. His investigation also revealed much about Powell’s personal family history, including that she had a brother who could not be located and two children who had been adopted by other families. One of her children had been murdered; the other couldn’t be found.

Additionally, due to her impaired mental condition, Powell had a court-appointed guardian – the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary. A representative from that office had visited Powell in prison less than two months before she died; thus, ADC officials should have been aware that she had a guardian who should have been consulted before she was taken off life support. Ryan defended his actions, saying the emergency room doctor told him Powell was terminal and it would be inhumane to keep her alive.

At the time of her death, Powell had served almost a year of her 27-month sentence on a prostitution charge. Though she had a long history of arrests, she also had been diagnosed with “disorganized schizophrenia, polysubstance abuse and mild mental retardation.” According to ADC reports, Powell said she was suicidal and was awaiting transfer to an observation cell after seeing a psychologist when she was placed in the outdoor cage. It was later learned that she had been on anti-psychotic medications, which may have made her more sensitive to hot temperatures.

“The death of Marcia Powell is a tragedy and a failure,” Ryan stated. “The investigation will determine whether there was negligence and will tell us how to remedy our failures.” He called the incident the “most significant example of abuse” he had seen in the ADC.

Powell’s death raised serious concerns about the Arizona prison system’s use of unshaded outdoor cages. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema called the cages “inhumane,” and said, “I think this would be an appropriate time to review that policy to see if it’s a good idea to use them at all.”

Elizabeth Alexander, former director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said the outdoor cages should have been questioned long ago. “If [the cage] wasn’t shaded, and it was Arizona in the summer, that’s extraordinarily dangerous,” she noted. “It’s rather surprising to me that no one thought about the risk from this situation, given that this is Arizona.”

Prisoners had complained about the cages for years, but of course who was going to listen to them? A volunteer teacher at the Perryville prison, who asked to remain anonymous, said the “general public doesn’t know what’s going on behind those doors. Granted these individuals have committed a crime.... But I don’t think these individuals should be treated in such an inhumane fashion.”

Apart from being held in outdoor chain-link cages in intolerable heat, prisoners also complained that guards would sometimes refuse them the opportunity to use the bathroom after sitting in the cages for hours. That apparently happened to Powell, who defecated in the cage after her request to use a toilet was denied.

Immediately after Powell’s death, ADC officials said the cages would no longer be used until shade and water could be provided. On June 3, 2009, Governor Jan Brewer announced that the outdoor cages would be permanently discontinued. Ryan and Brewer then reached a compromise that allowed limited use of the cages as short-term waiting areas and exercise pens for prisoners in segregation. New regulations dictate that guards must check on caged prisoners every half-hour, and the cages are now shaded and have mist-sprayers and benches.

During the subsequent investigation into Powell’s death, it was learned that guards at the Perryville prison had a “wait-them-out” approach in which prisoners were placed in indoor and outdoor cells for lengthy periods of time as an alternative to using force. According to one report, three days before Powell died another female prisoner had been held in an outdoor cage for twenty hours. That prisoner reportedly did not require medical treatment.

On September 22, 2009, Ryan announced that disciplinary action had been taken against 16 ADC employees in connection with Powell’s death. Three prison employees were fired, two quit instead of being fired, ten were suspended from 40 to 80 hours, and one was demoted. The remaining two, who were on medical leave, would be disciplined when they returned to work. The names of the ADC employees were not released; they included a deputy warden, a psychologist and a chief of security.

An autopsy report concluded that Powell’s death was accidental, caused by environmental heat exposure. Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, disagreed. “She was obviously left there without water, shade and attention,” Hamm said. “I don’t know what other elements have to be present to call it a negligent homicide.”

Criminal charges are being considered by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. According to Hamm, should any ADC employees be charged, “the message [would be] crystal clear to department employees about their responsibilities and the consequences of not following their own policy.” Hamm was appointed by the Probate Court to handle Powell’s funeral arrangements. About two hundred people attended her memorial service at Encanto Community Church, including Ryan.

Powell’s death provoked mixed reactions among the general public. In response to news reports that Powell had next of kin and a guardian, some readers applauded the investigation and decried the fact that she was taken off life support so soon.

Another reader, who described himself as “a tax paying business owner,” claimed that no one cared about Powell’s “wasted life.” That reader’s comments went on to say that “society wanted the plug pulled on [her] and many others years ago.”

But Powell’s life wasn’t wasted. In spite of what many would view as a tragic existence, her inexcusable, intentional death at the hands of the state served to raise the public’s awareness and ultimately improve conditions within the prison system. Her death enhanced the level of human rights for other prisoners.

That’s far from being a wasted life.

Sources: Associated Press, KSWT-TV, Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times,,,

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login