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Staff is disciplined after inmate death

September 23, 2009|Associated Press

PHOENIX — Sixteen Arizona corrections employees have been fired, suspended or otherwise disciplined for their roles in the death of an inmate left in an outdoor holding cell for four hours in triple-digit heat, and for a punishment practiced at the prison where she died.

Three of those disciplined were fired, two stepped down rather than be dismissed, 10 received suspensions ranging from 40 to 80 hours, and one was demoted. Two others are to be disciplined after they return from medical leave.

Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan announced the moves Tuesday, calling the death "the most significant example of abuse" of an inmate that he was aware of within the department.

Marcia Powell, 48, died of heat-related complications in May, hours after she collapsed in an unshaded outdoor cell at the Perryville prison in Goodyear. She had been there for nearly four hours, despite a prison policy setting a two-hour limit and requiring guards to check on inmates in the outdoor cell every 30 minutes.

She had first- and second-degree burns on her face and body, and a core body temperature of 108 degrees, an autopsy report said.

"That is an absolute failure," Ryan said Tuesday. "The inmate should not have been left in the enclosure that length of time."

Ryan declined to provide the names of the disciplined employees, saying that would be inappropriate because they could appeal. They included a deputy warden, a prison psychologist and a security chief.

The state prison system ended its use of outdoor cells weeks after Powell's death.

During the administrative investigation of Powell's death, Ryan said, investigators uncovered a so-called wait-them-out punishment at the prison. Inmates were placed in outdoor and indoor holdings cells for hours as an alternative to using force, he said.

Powell was not in a holding cell under that practice, Ryan said, but an inmate had been left in an outdoor cell for 20 hours three days before Powell's death. That inmate did not require medical treatment. Ryan said no one died under the wait-them-out practice.

The Maricopa County attorney's office will decide whether any employees will be criminally charged in Powell's death.

Powell was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution.

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