Heart of darkness: The prison murder of Shannon Palmer

Natural born killer

This is one of those unfathomable stories where you wonder if we’re all living on the same planet or if anything can be gleaned from it to ensure that it never happens again. Shannon Palmer, a mentally ill man with just a few months left on his sentence, was put in a small cell with Jasper Rushing, an obvious predator and sociopath who was serving 28 years for first-degree murder.

The cell was designed for one person, not two. The lights had been burned out for weeks so the only illumination was whatever dim light came in through the small window on the door. That could make anyone crazy. Being confined for hours a day with a man clearly not in touch with reality who rambled about government plots to kill him could make one more unhinged. But what Rushing did was beyond deranged. He attacked Palmer with homemade weapons, including one fashioned from a safety razor. After bludgeoning Palmer unconscious, Rushing slashed his throat with the razor, then cut off his penis. Palmer died 30 minutes later despite efforts to revive him by correctional officers.

One of those who tried to save Palmer was Lieutenant Chuck Bauer who later resigned over the incident. He says it didn’t have to happen. The prison was short-handed, the lights in the cell should have been fixed, and seriously mentally ill people probably shouldn’t be housed in the general population. But there’s no place to put them, that’s the problem. Also, the officer who placed the two together “was completely overworked – too much on her plate.” Compounding the problems are the mandated furloughs for guards, which has hurt morale. Basically, he says, officers are not happy with the pay or with safety. The trauma of the murder led to him resigning a job that he liked. As for blame, “How about if I just blame everyone?”

Arizona Prison Watch is deeply cynical and troubled by this. My bet is that an insurance risk assessor determined that the state would save more money by bunking first-degree killers and mentally ill vandals together than they would lose from lawsuits if a prisoner was murdered – especially if they put people with no voice or family to care about them in with the real bad guys. Besides, how often does the public object to prisoners being murdered here?

But it’s still a murder. Rushing’s comments afterwards were chilling, as he showed no remorse. He might as well have been talking about a fly he swatted because it annoyed him, and he blamed everyone but himself for his horrific violence.

There are four times more mentally ill people in prison than in mental institutions nationally. The rate in Arizona is even higher. Housing them in prisons just makes things worse for everyone: for themselves, for the other inmates, and for the guards. There has to be a better way.

(crossposted from AZIVN)