In 1954, an 18-year-old black woman named Eleanor Rush was incarcerated at the state women's prison. She was placed in solitary confinement for six days.
On the seventh day, Rush was not fed for over 16 hours. After 16 hours, she began yelling that she was hungry and wanted food. In response, the guards bound and gagged her, dislocating her neck in the process.
Half an hour later, Rush was dead.
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The next morning, when the other women in the prison gathered in the yard, another woman in the solitary confinement unit yelled the news about Rush's death from her window. The women in the yard surrounded the staff members supervising their activities and demanded answers about Rush's death. When they didn't get them, the women – both the black and the white women – rioted.
The riot lasted three and a half hours, not stopping until Raleigh, North Carolina, police and guards from the men's Central Prison arrived.
The women's riot brought outside attention to Rush's death. As a result:
The State Bureau of Investigation ordered a probe into Rush's death rather than believing the prison's explanation that Rush had dislocated her own neck and committed suicide.
Until that point, nothing in the prison rules explicitly prohibited the use of improvised gags. After the riot and probe, the State Prisons director explicitly banned the use of gags and iron claws (metal handcuffs that can squeeze tightly).
The prison administration was required to pay $3,000 to Rush's mother. At that time, $3,000 was more than half the yearly salary of the prison warden.
- The prison warden, who had allowed Rush to be bound and gagged, was replaced by Elizabeth McCubbin, the executive director of the Family and Children's Service Agency. Her hiring indicated a shift from a punitive model toward a more social service/social work orientation.
The women themselves testified that they had rioted to ensure that Rush's death was not dismissed and that the circumstances would not be repeated.
Fifty-five years after Rush was killed in solitary confinement, Marcia Powell, a mentally ill 48-year-old woman incarcerated at the Perryville Unit in Arizona, died. The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) has more than 600 of these outdoor cages where prisoners are placed to confine or restrict their movement or to hold them while awaiting medical appointments, work, education, or treatment programs. On May 20, 2009, the temperature was 107 degrees. Powell was placed in an unshaded cage in the prison yard. Although prison policy states that “water shall be continuously available” to caged prisoners and that they should be in the cage for “no more than two consecutive hours,” guards continually denied her water and kept her in the cage for four hours. Powell collapsed of heat stroke, was sent to West Valley Hospital where ADC Director Charles Ryan took her off life support hours later.
The ensuing media attention over Powell's death caused the ADC to temporarily suspend using these cages. Once the media attention faded, the ADC lifted the suspension.(1)
Abuses at Perryville have continued. The ADC has sent its prisoners to work for private agricultural businesses for almost 20 years.(2) The farm pays its imprisoned laborers two dollars per hour, not including the travel time to and from the farm. Women on the Perryville Unit are assigned to Martori Farms, an Arizona farm corporation that supplies fresh fruits and vegetables to vendors across the United States (Martori is the exclusive supplier to Wal-Mart's 2,470 Supercenter and Neighborhood Market stores).(3) According to one woman who worked on the farm crews:
They wake us up between 2:30 and three AM and KICK US OUT of our housing unit by 3:30AM. We get fed at four AM. Our work supervisors show up between 5AM and 8AM. Then it's an hour to a one and a half hour drive to the job site. Then we work eight hours regardless of conditions …. We work in the fields hoeing weeds and thinning plants … Currently we are forced to work in the blazing sun for eight hours. We run out of water several times a day. We ran out of sunscreen several times a week. They don't check medical backgrounds or ages before they pull women for these jobs. Many of us cannot do it! If we stop working and sit on the bus or even just take an unauthorized break we get a MAJOR ticket which takes away our “good time”!!!
We are told we get “two” 15 min breaks and a half hour lunch like a normal job but it's more like 10 minutes and 20 minutes. They constantly yell at us we are too slow and to speed up because we are costing $150 an acre in labor and that's not acceptable.
The place is infested with spiders of all types, scorpions, snakes and blood suckers. And bees because they harvest them. On my crew alone, there are four women with bee allergies, but they don't care!! There are NO epinephrine pens on site to SAVE them if stung.
There's no anti venom available for snake bites and they want us to use Windex (yes glass cleaner) for scorpion stings!! INSANITY!!! They are denying us medical care here.(4)
Although Martori Farms contracts with the local fire departments to provide medical attention for injuries on the farm, farm supervisors do not always allow women to stop work when they need medical care. When “N” complained of chest pains, the farm representative refused to allow her to stop working. The next day, an hour after returning to work, she began experiencing chest pains. The farm representative told her, “Come on, the big bosses are here. You'll be in trouble if you stop. It's not break time. Work, work, work.” “N” complied, working while in pain, until the break. She resumed working for another half hour before she experienced even more severe pains: “I have a steady deep dull pain with sharp stabbing pains periodically … Then all of a sudden, I can't even lift the hoe in the air. My arms are no longer strong enough. By now, the chest pains are so bad it's knocking the wind out of me. I'm straight seeing stars. I tell our substitute boss officer Sanders I can't do it no more. I'm having really bad chest pains. I can't even lift the hoe anymore.” The man accused her of faking these pains, but allowed her to stop working. While the woman was receiving medical attention, another farm representative stated, “Oh, so now they're gonna start faking fucking heart attacks to not work. Great.”(5)
In addition, the prison has sent women to work on the farms regardless of their medical conditions. “N” was sent to West Valley Hospital where an emergency room doctor ordered that she be exempt from the farm work crew and any other physical exertion for three to four days. However, when “N” was returned to the prison, the nurse told her that they could not honor the doctor's order and ordered her back to work.
Another woman concurs. “There was one woman that is on oxygen, in a wheelchair, has an IV line and cancer that they sent to the gate to work on the farm … The captain asked if she could stand. She said yes. His reply was if you can stand, you can farm. She told him no and was issued a disciplinary ticket.”(6)
The women have not accepted these abuses quietly. They have launched complaints to prison administrators:
“Women have made their complaints on inmate letters and verbally to the lieutenant, sergeant, captains, deputy warden, counselors, supervisors and the major. Their solution was to give us an extra sack lunch and agree to feed us breakfast Saturday mornings. UGH!! Really … food is not what we were asking for. Though being fed on Saturdays is nice. Yah! They were not feeding us Saturdays because that's a day Kitchen opens late because they give brunch on weekends. No lunch, so we were getting screwed! But as of this past Saturday they said they would feed us before work! Let's see how long it lasts.”
Women have also stood up to unfair demands from the bosses at the farm. One woman recounted:
On Wednesday I go to work … it's the second day in a row we are doing weeds. [I'm] up to my chest trying to weed to save a minimal amount of watermelon plants. Needless to say, the work was excessively hard – to put it mildly. So I must confess the day before I was “on one,” so to speak. My haunted mind was lost in the past and so I was just trucking through the weeds, plowing them down, not even connecting with my physical exertion and pain. So the next day I was completely exhausted and physically broke down!! I was in so much pain because the day before I did like double the work everyone else did. So anyways, the M Farm representative was pushing me so hard trying to get me to produce the same results as the day before … [He] has everyone at minimum teamed up helping each other plow through these weeds. Well everyone but me that is. I repeatedly asked him to give me a partner. I kept telling him that I was in pain. I also went as far as to tell him that I don't think I can do this anymore, to PLEASE give me a partner also. His response was “No. You're strong. You can do it by yourself.” I told him not true; I over-exerted myself yesterday because I was going through some things. Now I'm hurt and need help…. He thought my pleas were funny. I hated to degrade myself and plea so I stopped and continued.
After “N” had finished her assigned row, the farm representative demanded that she finish weeding two other rows that had been abandoned. When she again requested a weeding partner, stating that she was in pain, the representative replied, “When you get to the end, I'll think about it.”
By this time, all the girls are finishing their rows because they're all teamed up with 2 or three girls per row. Except me. So there are only two whole rows left on the field by now and he already placed six girls per row. That's twelve women on two rows. And I can't even get one helper. That's RIDICULOUS … I tell him “Mariano all joking aside, all the others are finishing. Can I please get a helper?” He tells me “Seriously, no joking. When you get to the end, I'll think about it.” At that point I'm pretty upset and broke down. I looked at him and said “Is that right?” I paused staring at him waiting for him to stop his male chauvinist domination games or whatever he's playing. When he didn't say anything, but just stared. I told him, “Fine Mariano I'm done. I can't do this anymore. I'm hurt and struggling through this. After what happened to me before I would think you would provide me help when I need it. Since you won't look out for my health and well-being, I will. Someone has to. I'm done for today. I'm going to sit on the bus.”
The supervisor demanded that she return to work, threatening to call the prison to have disciplinary tickets written up. She refused.
At this point I'm so angry that this jerk would make me lose everything because I'm not submissive and I don't obey him like the women back in Mexico do that I admit I blew up and acted unprofessional. I told him “Mariano, Fuck you and your tickets. Go write them if you want. In fact I'll write them for you to make sure you get the facts straight.”…
At this point the two women who were on the bus got all riled up and were yelling, “That's not fair. She's your best worker and you're going to punish her with tickets!!!” “She's hurt I heard her asking for help all day!” “We've been sitting on the bus for over an hour and we're not getting tickets, why is she the only one getting a ticket?”(7)
Not only did “N” stand up for herself, but the other women defended her actions at the risk of being ticketed as well. Their combined efforts ensured that “N” was not issued a ticket in retaliation for standing up for herself.
Women have also alerted outside advocates and activists about these inhumane conditions, again at great risk to themselves. If not for their courage in speaking out, the outside world would remain unaware of the exploitation and abuse on the farm.
While the women both endure and challenge these abuses, those outside prison gates remain largely unaware of their struggles. Those involved in social justice organizing need to recognize that prisons and prison injustices are exacerbations of the same social issues in the outside world and recognize that these struggles intersect. Safe from the retaliation of prison authorities, outside organizers and activists can and should raise their voices and take action to help the women inside challenge and ultimately stop these abuses.
1. As of April 15, 2010, these cages (or “temporary holding enclosures”) remain in use. Arizona Department of Corrections, Department Order Manual, Department Order 704: Inmate Regulations.
2. Nicole Hill, “With Fewer Migrant Workers, Farmers Turn to Prison Labor,” Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 2007. Reprinted here.
3. Press release, “16-Year Relationship Between Wal-Mart and Arizona Business Grows, Thrives,” September 7, 2007. The 2470 figure is as of August 1, 2007.