AFSC-Arizona’s #ReframingJustice Project believes the power of storytelling can reduce the size and scope of the criminal punishment system. Because human stories can change the narrative by vividly illustrating the tragedies of mass incarceration that occur every day.
Neil Early’s story is one that must be told.
Neil was tall and lean, like a swimmer, and just 20 years old when I met him in prison. It was 2012, and Neil was locked up for stealing video games, which he said he flipped for heroin before he was caught and arrested. The office of Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery threatened Neil with a prison sentence in the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) even longer than five years if he didn’t sign a plea bargain. Treatment, Neil told me, was never offered.
I was halfway through a 12-year sentence when Neil stepped off the old, white bus full of new prisoners that drove up from Phoenix to the Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC) in Kingman every Wednesday. I couldn’t resist him. Neil was too damn decent and sensitive. He wore a face of such melancholy when he first arrived, always stuck in his own head. But after he settled into a routine, Neil visited my bunk every day to share pictures of his friends and family—including photos of his newborn son—as we sipped instant coffee and smoked the occasional hand-rolled cigarette. But—as with most relationships on the inside—my time with Neil was short.
I was sent to another yard, leaving Neil and many other friends behind. Such is the prison construct: people are held at the whims of their captors, to be shipped off—often arbitrarily—to a different facility in a different town. Eventually, Neil and I ended up on the same prison yard again, but we were separated by a fence that divided the population in half and limited our contact. It had been two years since I’d spent any quality time with Neil when I heard the news.
Our sadness and despair over Neil Early’s death aren’t enough, because a story like Neil’s isn’t an anomaly.
I need to tell you about Neil Early because people like Neil must stop dying because they are addicts. You can see Neil’s story this month in Rolling Stone, which published a compelling exposé of “the corruption of Arizona’s for-profit prison system”. Kathy Dobie’s impeccably-researched article paints a vivid picture of so-called life at ASPC-Kingman, a private facility that was operated by Management and Training Corporation during my and Neil’s time there, and is now operated by GEO Group—one of the largest private prison operators in the world. GEO Group was given the contract to run ASPC-Kingman in December 2015 only after, as Dobie writes, “one escape, two dead retirees, a flood of drugs, who knows how many [prisoners] bullied, cowed, strung out, injured over the years, a murdered 23-year-old shoplifter, and three days of rioting that destroyed one half of the prison and led to [a guard’s] suicide.”
Neil Early was the 23-year-old shoplifter. He died on January 19, 2015, after he was beaten by other prisoners locked up at ASPC-Kingman. The medical staff—employed by Correctional Healthcare, who had been contracted to provide primary care for prisoners in Kingman—were so incompetent that they treated Neil’s injuries as “seizure-like activity” and ignored the “baseball size contusion and swelling” on the left side of Neil’s head. Neil had to be taken to a trauma center in Las Vegas, about 100 miles north of the prison. He died handcuffed to a hospital bed.
Neil’s story illustrates the inherent problems with for-profit companies contracted to house, feed and care for prisoners. The bottom line will always win out over the needs of incarcerated people. Treatment programs affect the bottom line. More guards affect the bottom line. Adequate healthcare affects the bottom line. And lower recidivism? Well, that destroys the entire business model.
Among those of us who were incarcerated with Neil, we couldn’t make sense of his death, no matter how much we tried. The day Neil died, I insulated myself, lied on my bunk, and recalled a line from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden that punctuated the senselessness of losing a soul so tortured, but so compassionate.
“It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.”
Our sadness and despair over Neil’s death aren’t enough, because a story like Neil’s isn’t an anomaly. People get five years for shoplifting every day in Arizona and across the country. And most are addicts—often mentally ill and struggling with homelessness—marginalized and desperate. All of us must tell Neil’s story—the story of a kid who struggled with addiction and was tossed away by prosecutors. He got prison, not treatment. He was neglected by prison profiteers who did nothing to prevent his death. If not for our system of criminal punishment, Neil Early would be alive today.
Tell your friends and family about Neil Early because the stories of those lost to mass incarceration will eventually end mass incarceration.
—By Joe Watson, AFSC-AZ Research & Media Consultant