The move from our sensory deprivation supermax cells on Browning Unit’s Death Row to another facility and open yard was a physiological and psychological shock for all of us. Us, being the approximate 100 prisoners on Arizona’s Death Row, whom qualified to move a few miles West to a level five open yard infamously known as Central Unit. The place hasn’t changed much since Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor filmed their hit move here: Stir Crazy (1980).
We looked confused and responded to our new environment like caged animals on one of those nature shows, being released into the wild for the first time–“The sensory overload was hard to process the first few days,” said Scott Nordstrom, who won the conditions of confinement claim against Arizona’s Department of Corrections (ADC).
I knew exactly what he meant. In our supermax cells everything we possessed in our windowless cell had ben cataloged: pre-approved and hand delivered by a correctional officer (C.O.), all we had to do was sign for it.
In contrast, we now leave our cells without handcuffs or leg irons four to six times per day. During our first week here, just before we’d leave our cells in the morning the C.O.’s would yell out; “you must wear pants, socks and shoes, tuck in your shirts and grab your ID’s. It’s all reminiscent of directions a first-grade teacher would give to her class prior to going to lunch: and sadly, we needed those directions as we navigated about in our new environment with muted wanderlust.
Nordstrom is 6’3”, 215 lbs. and resides comfortably in the eye of the storm – he created. At morning chow, I asked someone to point him out for me, he did, and as I approached The Nordstrom table/office I observed and listened as numerous prisoners darted in and out. Each one sharing bits of information and progress on pending grievances, lawsuits; pending and future. Perhaps 15 minutes passed before the beehive of activity subsided, Nordstrom gave me the nod: it was my turn. I held my hand out to shake his and said: “I understand you are the Dragon Slayer and wanted to congratulate and thank you for your desire and successful effort on getting us moved out of Hell.” Nordstrom quickly deflected my accolades saying: “Thank you, but all this couldn’t have been accomplished without the team at the Arizona Capital Representation Project (ACRP). We exchanged a few more pleasantries and parted ways.
A few days later, as the noise in my brain quieted, it dawned on me, Prison Legal News Magazine and other media outlets may be interest in this ‘David Slays Goliath’ story. So, once again I approached The Nordstrom Office, waiting my turn, watching and admiring the human computer. Millennials would be in awe, without a laptop or even a legal pad full of notes, Nordstrom spits cites from Case Law and A.D.C. Policies to those in need of such information. I get the nod. Wasting no time, I ask; “Would you be interested in sharing your story with the media to inspire the down trodden jailhouse lawyers out there?” Nordstrom replied, “As long as the story is factual, not boastful and doesn’t slay the A.D.C.”
“I’m fine with that,” I replied, “may we explore this further at recreation tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Nordstrom responded back “that will give me time to better consider your offer.”
George Kayer: I’m curious Scott, what was the last straw? What was it that motivated you to say; I have to fight for better conditions?
Scott Nordstrom: The tipping point was when the prison removed fresh fruit from our meals, and removed all items containing yeast and sugar from our cells and store.
GK: Yeah, they took mine too.
SN: Remember when the general population inmates at S.M.U.I. nearly killed 11 of themselves when they drank a batch of hooch that turned into botulism?
GK: I do.
SN: Then a few weeks later the C.O.’s shook us down and took all of our commissary sugar items such as, honey-buns, sodas, candy and everything containing sugar or yeast.
GK: So, these million dollars shake up is over a chocolate covered honey-bun?
SN: Absolutely! Don’t mess with my sweets. But seriously, the guys involved in the botulism incident caused all of us max custody units in Arizona to lose our sugar items, yet eventually they classified out of max custody to a yard that has all of the commissary they had taken away from us, that just didn’t sit well with myself and others on the row.
GK: I understand that yourself and many other inmates filed grievances addressing all of these issues, which were denied by Director Charles Ryan?
SN: True. Prior to the filing of the complaint we attempted to resolve the majority of depravations found at Browning unit which included:
Being strip searched and cuffed the back prior to leaving our cell; even to walk 20 feet to the shower.
The psychological/sensory deprivation and torture techniques used, i.e. limited social interaction and leaving our cell lights on 24 hours a day.
We needed more out of cell time and social interaction
Contact visits for family and attorneys
The return of store and property items that we are entitled to; like CD players available to the rest of prison yards. We were forced to use antiquated Walkman cassette players from the 1970’s…
GK: Let me interrupt you for a moment and be the citizen on the street. I can hear the average citizen on the street ask: Why should a prisoner on Death Row be allowed any of the afore mentioned luxuries?
SN: Laughing loudly. Luxuries? Okay, the answer is due process of law and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. America was founded on and still functions today through Constitutional Amendment; these constitutional rights are not lost to prisoners when they step through the prison gates. The A.D.C. cannot arbitrarily strip its prisoners from the protections afforded therein.
ADC’S purposeful indifference to its Death Row Population; refusing its prisoners due process resulted in the depravations that should not have existed or continued for as long as they did. Clearly, these were violations of our constitutional rights. Remember per A.D.C.’s policy, the Death Row population (at the time) didn’t have