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The Inmate Who Moved Death Row

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).

Freebird Publisher | Inmate Publications

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.”

The Interview:

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:

  1. Being strip searched and cuffed the back prior to leaving our cell; even to walk 20 feet to the shower.

  2. The psychological/sensory deprivation and torture techniques used, i.e. limited social interaction and leaving our cell lights on 24 hours a day.

  3. We needed more out of cell time and social interaction

  4. Contact visits for family and attorneys

  5. 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 a due process right to reclassify to a lower custody level, even through the vast majority of Death Row inmates exhibited decades of exemplary behavior. Effectively, we were permanent residents of solitary confinement.

GK: One of the issues in your grievances challenged A.D.C.’s bi-annual reclassification process; you requested their (A.D.C.’s) justification for your permanent housing in MAX custody–and their response?

SN: A.D.C.’s repeated response was: ‘Due to your sentence of death, maximum custody recommended.’ Irrespective of my challenge to the meaningless formality of the A.D.C.’s reclassification process, the A.D.C. officials blatantly ignored the obvious due process violation that spearheaded the eighth amendment condition of confinement complaint.

GK: Tell me how Arizona Capital Representation Project (ACRP) became involved.

SN: When the grievance appeals were denied, I started to draft the complaint that I thought would succeed. I based the legal argument on a case that had success in the Virginia District Court on very similar violations (Prieto v. Clark[1]) and articles like “Bethinking Death Row” 2016 Yale Law School Study.

I submitted my § 1983 draft to the attorneys at the A.C.R.P. for consideration and feedback. Their collective response was Yes, there is a sound due process violation; my argument had teeth, they volunteered to champion the case.

More specifically, Sam Kooistra and Todd Jackson are counsel of record, the § 1983 complaint was filed in Arizona Federal District Court. Nordstrom v. Ryan[2], on October 29, 2015. On March 3, 2017 (less than 17 months) the A.D.C. entered into a stipulated agreement acquiescing to amend their policies prohibiting Death Row inmates from reclassifying out of maximum custody.

Further, the A.D.C. agreed to reclassify and transfer me to a close custody facility (level four) within 120 days (by July 1, 2017) they missed their deadline by 17 days and Central Unit is a maximum–not level four custody unit that allows more privileges than Browning Unit does. However, the A.D.C. is not in compliance with the stipulation so Nordstrom filed on August 2, 2017 a “motion to enforce stipulation of settlement” due to the numerous now–compliance issues (Nordstrom v. Ryan[3]).

GK: I remember when the ruling hit the paper, we couldn’t believe it. After 20 years in a cage freedom was simple unfathomable. Everyday there were rampant rumors about where we’d be moving; what freedoms and items we’d be allowed to have; hot breakfast trays, mirrors, cd players were hot topics.

SN: Correct. There were and remains a great deal of confusion on both sides. The A.D.C. has transferred us; as stated above, however, the fight isn’t over. A.D.C. has yet to fulfill all that it agreed to. The struggles continue; however, I am hopeful that the A.D.C. will do all that they have agreed to, within a reasonable amount of time.

GK: And my big question for the day, have you yet been rewarded with a chocolate covered honey-bun?

SN: Not yet. I look forward to the day you hand me that; and an ice cream cone to top it off, eh.

GK: Scott, I thank you for slaying the dragon and sharing your story with me.

SN: The pleasure is mine.

On July 18-20th, 2017 the A.D.C. moved approximately 100 Death Row inmates to their new destination as they continue their appeals. There are around 25-35 Death Row inmates who remain at Browning Unit (supermax) for various reason; Medical, S.T.G., a history of assaulting staff or inmates, Protective Custody (PC) and six or seven who made the move with us, but after the damage of 20 years in a windowless box, they couldn’t adapt psychologically; they returned to their perceived sanctuary: I was almost one of them.

There’s been only one incident of violence. On the second day three prisoners attacked another prisoner. Those individuals have been returned to supermax, Browning Unit.

Our Death Row population is oddly unique in that we have set aside our difference and agreed to make our new domain a happy safe place, for all of us, regardless of race or crime. The COs are truly dumbfounded. Not only are we courteous to them and each other; they’ve never seen such a diverse group of (level four) prisoners get along and not be interested in assaulting each other. Arizona’s Death Row has changed for the better for all involved.

Contact Info:

Scott Nordstrom ASPC Florence – Central Unit CB4-A-9

PO Box 8200 Florence, AZ 85132

George Kayer:

[1] Prieto v. Clark (2013) Virginia DOC/District Court

[2] Nordstrom v. Ryan, 2:15-CV-02176-DGD-J2B (10.29.15)

[3] Stipulated Agreement: Id. at DKT. 39.

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