Remembering Marcia Powell
“The king will answer them: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.'”
About 30 people gathered on Sunday morning in one of the city's most beautiful places to remember one of the state's most horrifying moments.
They were there to remember a woman none of them knew in the hope that never again would what happened to her happen to another human being. They were there to say that we can – that we must – do better.
“This could have happened to any one of us so it's important that we remember,” said one of those present, a man who suffers from a mental illness, as did Marcia Powell.
Marcia Powell. You know the name. It instantly brings to mind one of Arizona's most shameful days, the day we let a woman die in an uncovered metal cage in the middle of a dirt yard in the middle of a state prison.
Her chief crime: that she was mentally ill.
Powell never knew her real parents and she ran away from her adoptive parents when she was 14. For most of her life, she lived on the streets, doing drugs and turning tricks. It was all she knew how to do, having been fired from every job she ever had. She bounced from street to jail to prison and back again, at times getting arrested within hours of her release. In all, she racked up two dozen or more felony convictions and 30 misdemeanors in three states, most of them for prostitution or drug possession.
As far back as 1993, authorities recognized that she had a mental illness but she didn't want help and we gave her exactly what she wanted.
In July 2008, she offered sex to an undercover cop in exchange for $20 worth of crack. Her attorney pointed out the obvious, that another stay in prison would only lead to more stays in prison, that it wasn't the answer to reforming Powell or protecting the public. She was sentenced to 27 months in prison anyway.
During the late morning of May 19, Powell said she was suicidal and was put in an outdoor cage to await transfer to the psychiatric unit at the Perryville prison. Four hours later, she collapsed, her body smeared with excrement, her organs melting in the sweltering Arizona sun. At least 20 inmates said she had begged for water, though guards on duty denied that.
Powell died the next day.
It was left to strangers to claim her ashes. Her adoptive mother, who lives in a gated community in La Quinta, Calif., wanted no part of any send off. Her only known son was murdered a few years ago. Her daughter could not be found. That's how it often is with those who suffer from mental illness. They are isolated and alone, easily forgotten.
One man, however, couldn't forget. Twelve years of Catholic schooling -- in particular that Bible passage in Matthew, quoting Jesus -- stuck. For months, he thought about how Marcia Powell lived and the way she died.
“The thought of her in a cage, screaming for water, covered in her own feces -- that that could happen in 2009 in the city I grew up in was unimaginable and kind of an indictment of us all,” said the man, who asked not to be named in order to protect the privacy of his son, who also suffers from mental illness.
Both the man and his son graduated from Brophy College Preparatory so it was natural, I suppose, that he approached the school last fall about putting up a small memorial to Powell, some place where her story could be told, in the hope that never again is it repeated.
The Rev. Edward Reese, president of the school, agreed. “It just struck me as the right thing to do,” he told me. “The kind of kids we want to produce from here are boys that are going to make a difference. They are so far from her life and yet they are a part of her life.”
And so it was on Sunday that a small group gathered to bless Marcia's plaque, set into stone at the courtyard entrance to Brophy Chapel. “In memory of her and all those forgotten or neglected by society,” it says, “may they finally rest in peace.”
Marcia Powell's story will be written and hung just inside the chapel and Reese will be there, to talk of it to the boys who come to Brophy to learn, as it turns out, not just with their heads but with their hearts.
“This community can no longer do nothing…,” said the man who commissioned the plaque. “Her story can serve as a real contemporary human example of those eternal truths which they teach and we all ought to try to live up to.”
It was fitting that the tribute came at the beginning of May, which is Mental Health Month. One year later, it's a good time to consider what we have learned from Marcia Powell. Was she unreachable or did we just fail to reach her?
Something to ponder as May turns into June and June to July when the state is cutting off most services to 14,500 seriously mentally ill Arizonans who, like Marcia, so badly need our help.
(Column published May 5, 2010, The Arizona Republic)