How Prison Killed Sex Worker Marcia Powell

PJ Starr Photograph by Mike Shipley taken during filming
PJ Starr – picture taken during filming
Photo credit: Mike Shipley

In 2009, filmmaker PJ Starr received an email from a friend bringing news of the horrific and unnecessary death of Marcia Powell.

Powell had been serving a 27-month sentence for solicitation of prostitution. While in Perryville Prison outside of Phoenix, corrections officers left her out in a metal cage for four hours in searing heat. As a result, she collapsed and shortly after died.

Starr is now making a documentary, No Human Involved, to ensure that lessons are learned from the death of Marcia Powell. She’s currently hosting an Indiegogo campaign to raise completion funding.

Cris Sardina of Desiree Alliance holding pictures of Marcia Powell Photo credit: PJ Starr
Cris Sardina of Desiree Alliance holding pictures of Marcia Powell
Photo credit: PJ Starr

How did you come to film No Human Involved?

After reading about what happened, Marcia’s story was always with me. In 2010 at the Filmmakers’ Collaborative at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, I began to develop the idea of investigating Marcia’s case as a potential documentary. Many of my peers at Maysles—who were people with a lot of community organizing knowledge—were quite astounded by the sentence she was serving and what had happened to her. I knew then that documenting what had happened to Marcia Powell could be a vital step in educating the general public about the real harms caused to people in the sex trade by the prison-industrial complex.

In 2010 I didn’t know anyone in Phoenix, I wasn’t acquainted with the organizing there and I hadn’t known Marcia personally. My previous work had always been with folks I had known for years. But my film mentor, Carol Leigh, connected me to several key activists in Phoenix, most importantly with Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch. In March of 2011, I visited Peggy and several other the local activists to ask if they thought the film should be made and if my approach appealed to them. I knew from being involved in grassroots organizing that so often “outside experts” suck the energy out of a community and this was something I wanted to avoid. Everything fell into place during that first journey; we all were on the same page. People were also beginning to reflect on how Marcia’s death had set a series of events in motion and wanted to talk about that in the context of a documentary.

What do you hope this project will achieve?

Marcia Powell - Peggy's Chalking
Chalking by Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch

I want people to understand that what happened to Marcia can happen again. The film is not about an isolated, shocking incident (even though the case is horrific); rather it explores an example that exposes the system. As a member of Phoenix Food Not Bombs said at Marcia’s memorial service in 2009, “This has happened before, it will happen again, it happens to men, women and transgender people.” There is a mistaken belief among concerned people that somehow going to prison can “turn someone’s life around” and help people “escape” prostitution or drug use. So, the first part of the message of No Human Involved is that prison is not safe, you don’t get comprehensive services there, you are dehumanized. If you are a woman who doesn’t conform to a very narrow set of gender norms, you are at greater risk—or if you are trans, or queer or if you have a mental health issue [as Powell did].

The second part is that a web of terrible laws and policies—ranging from statutes to prevent walking and sleeping in public space and surviving through sex work—are sending people to prison for very long periods of time under mandatory sentencing. I think there are many, many people in the general public who want women like Marcia to “be helped,” but they don’t yet understand the real functioning of the law, how policing happens, what happens to you in the courtroom and the system that classifies you once you are inside a prison. No Human Involved unpacks all of this, step by step, so that audiences can think differently about what needs to change. The film also raises awareness about the sheer numbers of people being arrested under the current criminalization of the sex trade in Arizona and the sheer numbers of people being placed in jails and prisons for doing what they need to live.

What research have you undertaken?

When I first started developing the film idea in 2010 and early 2011, I read a lot of online materials and reports about Marcia’s death. Since then, the ACLU Arizona has published some very important documents about the experiences of prisoners that also form background information for the film. Over time, No Human Involved has evolved into very much a community project. Finding accurate information relating to incarceration has been a learning curve and I am in awe of what folks in Phoenix can do. A colleague in Arizona has shown me how to request extremely detailed information from the Arizona Department of Corrections and my good friend Monica Jones not only explained how the courts function in Arizona but encouraged me to find recordings and videotapes of Marcia’s court appearances. Kini Seawright (of the Seawright Prison Justice Project) has helped me seek out connections in the activist community to find people who knew Marcia.I’ve spoken to scores of people to record background interviews, including some with amazing women who were in Perryville with Marcia who have shared about who she was and how she was treated. I’ve met and interviewed people from the corrections system, and a local filmmaker gave me truly vital original footage of Charles Ryan (the director of the Department of Corrections) speaking about the case at a memorial for Marcia organized by activists in 2009.

In order to document how the community has responded in the years since Marcia’s death, I’ve attended (and filmed) church services, memorials, meetings at local women’s groups, rallies, actions. I’ve filmed with permission in the court and spoken to law enforcement. I’ve seen and documented the emergence of SWOP Phoenix as a presence to challenge the policing practices that put Marcia on that path to Perryville Prison.

How can others get involved in the project?

If folks are on social media they should follow/like the No Human Involved project on Facebook and Twitter. Donations on Indiegogo are tax deductible, and every cent will be going back to support the film.

What message do you hope people will take from the film? Free Marcia Powell

I am taking a step out to interface with people who may know a little about the impact of incarceration but who have not yet had a chance to connect the dots about anti-prostitution policies, policing, the prison industrial complex and people in the community who also happen to be engaged (or profiled as engaging) in sex work. Even though as rights based activists we have collectively made enormous strides in explaining all of this, I am sure that there is a very large number of people out there who want to do the right thing by the communities of people mentioned in the film (sex workers, people with mental health issues, people with experiences of incarceration) but need more information. The film is a rights project engaging with the audience to explain that prisons are not a solution and that human rights, not “rescue” by the police, are what work best. The phrase “no human involved” indicates that the powers-that-be are not interested in investigating violence committed against certain groups of people, because their lives are considered unimportant. My documentary reaffirms Marcia’s humanity. Finally, the phrase “free Marcia Powell” (first used by Peggy Plews of Arizona Prison Watch) is repeated throughout the film, and will anchor social media strategies in a call for liberation of Marcia’s spirit and all those who are still incarcerated.

Suggested further reading and viewing:

—Peggy Plews at Arizona Prison Watch.

—Women’s Resistance Behind Bars by Victoria Law illustrates how women in prison seek justice. Victoria and her colleagues at Truthout also provide an instructive commentary on documentary and journalist portrayals of prisoners at a 2014 panel discussion at the Left Forum in NYC. They describe what works and what undermines activism and recommend some excellent films to view.

—For very honest and insightful information from someone who has worked within the Department of Corrections, the various writings of Carl Toersbijns.

To support the final phase of producing the documentary No Human Involved, click here to donate to the Indiegogo campaign. There are only a few hours left to donate!!

This interview originally appeared on





Ruth Jacobs is the author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a drug- addicted call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from her own life. In addition to fiction writing, Ruth is also involved in non-fiction, journalism and broadcasting, primarily for charity and human rights campaigning. Information on the Soul Destruction series can be found at and Ruth’s author website is