A Fixture In The Phoenix Metro Activist Community, Peggy Plews Is A Tireless Champion For Prisoner Rights Who Dreams Of A World Where Prisons Are No Longer Necessary
Peggy Plews, Prison Abolitionist. Photos by Jeff Moses.
By Jeff Moses
Modern Times Magazine
April 4, 2013 — Peggy Plews is a woman devoted to a vision of a world without prisons. She has worked tirelessly to be an advocate for one of the most stifled voices in America, the American prisoner for several years. This journey began when she quit ASU one class shy of a justice studies degree because once she started helping prisoners, she had found her calling. Through harsh critiques and poor health, Plews has continued to be an inspiration for not only prisoners, but also activists and the community at large.
Modern Times Magazine: Why did you decide that Prison Watch was something that was important to you?
Peggy Plews: Well about three and half a years ago when I was getting ready to graduate from ASU, Marcia Powell died horribly in a cage in the sun in 108-degree heat in Perryville. She was a mentally ill prostitute doing 27 months for offering a cop a $20 blowjob and she was supposed to be on a 10-minute suicide watch when they stuck her in this cage. Which they often did to punish women, it was their routine there was no reason for them to think she would die cause they had just put a women in that cage for 20 hours the day before that didn't die. So it was a routine practice it wasn't just a few bad apples. But anyway when this all happened I was pretty horrified and I started looking around for information about the conditions in the prisons, and about people who were mentally ill, and the treatment they were subject to. I couldn't find any information about Arizona state prisons except what the prisons themselves were putting out. I found middle ground's website and they were clearly mainstream advocates but there wasn't a lot else that I could find as far as information goes, so I decided to start a blog which was Prison Abolitionist http://www.prisonabolitionist.org/. It wasn't really until a couple months later that I did Arizona Prison Watch, http://arizonaprisonwatch.blogspot.com/, which is inspired by Nevada Prison Watch, which a friend of mine does from Amsterdam. So the idea with Arizona Prison Watch was to provide both a resource center for people like myself and family members who are looking for information about prisoners, about sentencing, about whatever is relevant to the prison industrial complex in Arizona and also to provide an alternative narrative to the state's narrative of crime and punishment in Arizona.
I'm starting to take it in a different direction now because for a long time I didn't really know what I was doing. I wasn't getting a lot of correspondence from prisoners and it wasn't necessarily something I set out to do but it wasn't until I started getting correspondence from prisoners that I really started to understand what was going on in the prisons. So now I'm increasingly in a position that I can set up blogs that will feature prisoner's voices. I think it's really important to start getting prisoners' voices out. The fundamental idea is, basically, that horrible things are allowed to be perpetrated if they're perpetrated in secret, and once they're no longer secret and once people know that secrets will not be kept if they abuse somebody, than its less likely that that stuff is going to be perpetrated again. So I think exposure of violence and exposure to state's violence is essential not only so the victims of that violence can have a sense that they aren't so isolated. Sometimes all I can do is be a witness to what is going on with these people. I can't protect them, but sometimes having a witness especially when the state consistently denies that they're responsible for any of these abuses, it can make a difference in whether or not you can survive that trauma.
MTM: Why did you choose to name your blog Prison Abolitionist?
PP: I had just spent a year taking classes on social movements and prison social movements in particular. So I had exposure to the whole concept of prison abolition. I have a vision of the world where its not just a matter of having no prisons but a world where we learn different ways to deal with violence and trauma and how we inflict harm upon each other. Whether you call it a crime or not, there is an awful lot of damage that's done to people, that people do to each other, and the way the system is designed now, it removes people from responsibility or from holding each other accountable. It places the responsibly for punishment, for accountability, far away from the community that is affected by harm. It's not enough to reform the system and it's not just about prisons. The system needs to be replaced; we need to be starting from a different place. There is plenty of conversations about what reforms need to be made and I'm all for helping people survive right now while they're in the situation. I'm a realist. I deal with the state all the time and try to negotiate on behalf of the prisoners and there are a lot of things I would like to see changed. But I thought it was necessary to introduce the whole issue of abolition to the discussion of prison reform and I didn't see that as a voice that was in Arizona.
There is a lot of prison abolition organizing being done in California and a couple of other places, so I felt like the best way to find other prison abolitionists would be to put it out there. I don't have a manual on how to get from here to there so what I was hoping to do with my blog was put more focus on alternatives to the current system. I think the term abolitionist makes people stop and question in a way I don't think they otherwise would question and so even though it requires me to explain a lot more when I'm working with mainstream activists, I think it's got to be part of the dialogue.
MTM: What are the harshest responses you have encountered to the idea of prison abolition?
PP: One of the harshest critiques was somebody yelled out a car window, "my father raped me. What would you do with him?" And that's not necessarily a discussion you can have, and he was responding to the graffiti on my car, "imagine no prisons," so he was yelling that he was a rape victim and my vision would set his father free and that's basically what the critique always goes right to. What would you do with all the rapists and murderers? Well, first of all, most of the people in prison are not there because they are rapists or murderers. But I don't want to get into a hierarchy of who deserves and who isn't deserving because that's one of the problems of how our criminal justice system works.
MTM: What do you say to the critics?
PP: I think the place that we start is first of all acknowledging that people need to be protected and people need to be safe first. So there are a lot of problems with justice programs that don't respect that reality. That guy in particular I wish I had a chance to talk to, to have said that I'm sorry that happened to him and a vision of a world without prisons is not a vision of a world where children are still molested. It's a vision of a world that treats children differently. We don't start from getting rid of the prisons and then figuring out what to do. We start with how do we respond to victims now. I mean, 80 percent of women in prison for violent crimes are themselves survivors of sexual assault and that's a conservative estimate. So something's happening with how we deal with victims in the first place. There are just so many different levels to start on. We have to begin with, I think, recognizing that that's where the prison abolition movement is most vulnerable. Most people are getting to a point where they know this drug war is bullshit. But there are people, the people in power now, that are perpetrating this violence. I want to see them locked up, you know. I don't always know what to do with folks. There are a few people I would just like to take a fist to.
MTM: Who would you like to take a fist to?
PP: Those people that I would like to take a theoretical fist to would start with people like Chuck Ryan (Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections) , people like Joe Arpaio. People who go around spending their lives, spending their careers, harming people. You know they're a danger to society as far as I'm concerned and given power they will go around harming people. Now, what if they don't have the power? Will they still be a danger to society? And that's a question you have to ask about a lot of criminals the way that we treat prisoners. I mean if you think about it the amount of human energy and resources that go into just the physical act of putting people in chains and cages, millions of people, is immense.
MTM: What are your feelings on Det. Chris Wilson, and his sexual misconduct case?
PP: So, how the community is responding to Chris, what has not happened that I think should happen is there should be a show of public support around that family so that when he walks into the courtroom there are other people in that courtroom with that family. So that the community is holding him responsible its not just him in his isolated little secretness having his dirty secrets exposed but there are people witnessing him saying, ‘no I'm not going to have an HIV test those boys might have infected me.’ Which is basically what his attorney is saying on his behalf. And I think if that kind of stuff was more public then there are different ways to get justice than relying entirely on the criminal justice system to do their process. So that's just one way where in a different kind of society where the question isn't immediately how do we punish this person but how do we respond to the harm. There are a lot of different things that go into action both around protecting the victim and protecting the other people in the community. As well as responding to the harm that that person may be acting out of for example.
MTM: How can people get involved in helping AZ prison abolition?
PP: I'm starting to meet with people through the Seawright Prison Justice Project every Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Puente building at 1306 E. Van Buren in Phoenix. I'm going to be there as a resource. There are some families and friends of prisoners who will probably be dropping by to offer support to anyone who has a loved one in prison and needs help dealing with situations. What we are hoping to do through the Seawright Prison Justice Project is, my friend's son was murdered in prison two and half a years ago. He was murdered for having a Mexican boyfriend and he was black and he was murdered for crossing the color line and for being gay. They took his life and because there is probably complicity involving the guards we believe his homicide case was closed by the Department of Corrections without prosecuting anyone — because they were afraid of what would be revealed should they do so. There are inherent problems being a prison abolitionist turning to the criminal justice system and asking them to get justice for a victim particularly for a prisoner who according to the state constitution doesn't even have the rights of a victim if they get assaulted or murdered in prison. There is also problems with expecting the civil system to come up with just solutions like in civil lawsuits trying to hold people responsible for their conduct. So what we are hoping to do with the Seawright Prison Justice Project is look for other ways to create just outcomes for prisoners who are being subjected to violence, for families who have survived the loss of loved ones, to try and transform the prison culture and not just the prison culture but the culture in our communities that not only quietly and passively allows that kind of stuff to go on but actively eggs it on.
You know when you look at an article on the Internet where someone has killed themselves or had just been murdered, it just happened this weekend. Someone was murdered in prison and people are on there commenting, you know, good riddance probably got what he deserved. I bet he was a child molester. Whatever, they're all egging it on. Egging on more violence without having any idea what they're talking about or what they're encouraging. So what we hope to do through this project is not just be a resource for people to get concrete help but also to strategize amongst ourselves how to answer some of these questions.
Jeff Moses is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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