In May of 2009, Marcia Powell died after being tortured in an Arizona prison. She was a 48-year-old woman who was sentenced to 27 months in prison for doing street based sex work.
PJ Starr’s documentary No Human Involved tells Marcia’s story through the actions of Peggy Plews. Plews identifies as a prison abolitionist. She believes prisons should not be used because they are ineffective and inhumane. She launched a passionate campaign to seek justice for Powell after her death.
As Seattle sex worker and activist Maggie McNeill notes, “many police departments use the slang term ‘NHI’, meaning ‘no humans involved’, for crimes committed against individuals that police consider not worth investigating.” McNeill writes that, “the term seems to have originated in Southern California in the 1960s and gained more widespread usage in the ‘80s and ‘90s” and asks, “does anyone doubt that if crimes committed against such individuals are ignored by police when a stranger commits them, that they will not be actively covered up when committed by a ‘brother officer’?”
Former Los Angeles police officer turned sex worker Norma Jean Almodovar states that the murders of sex workers are often referred to as ‘misdemeanor murders’ or ‘NHIs’ – meaning ‘no humans involved’.” She argues “terms like these make it clear that those of us who choose, for whatever reason, to engage in commercial sex are no longer considered a part of the human race.”
Plews is very committed to humanising Marcia Powell in the film. She insists on telling every detail of her death to anyone who will listen. She meets with women’s groups to mobilise them for protests and holds demonstrations outside of Arizona state institutions.
Plews does the work with her partner Kini Seawright who also did time in the American prison system with Marcia Powell. Footage of the two of them at home brings warmth to this difficult subject. Video of Powell being sentenced is distressing. She struggles and asks the judge to “please don’t give me too much time sir.” As Maggie, who was incarcerated with Powell in Perryville Prison says, “she was a good person. She was somebody’s somebody. And to be treated like she was that wasn’t fair.”
Sex workers will appreciate the film for its advocacy of sex workers’ rights. Highlights include an interview with Monica Jones, a transgender sex worker who was arrested for “manifesting prostitution” and who had her case overturned through strong community support, as well as documentation of activism by SWOP-Phoenix.
A compelling video by Molly Crabapple that features Marcia Powell and Monica Jones:
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