Martori Farms: Abusive Conditions at a Key Wal-Mart Supplier
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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.
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.
Abuses at Perryville have continued. The ADC has sent its prisoners to work for private agricultural businesses for almost 20 years. 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). According to one woman who worked on the farm crews: