Approximately 50 walkers chanted “Live Peaceably!” during the Phoenix Peace Heroes Walk Around the World from the Heard Museum to the Phoenix Art Museum in Downtown Phoenix on Saturday, March 12. Among 26 Peace Heroes from across the world, Patti Jones, aunt of Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Anthony “Tony” Lester, was honored and recognized for her hard work. Since the death of her nephew, Jones has become an advocate for peace, focusing on the mentally ill who are incarcerated.
“I can tell you the horrible story, but it’s sad. I don’t want you to think that race was not an issue, it [was and still] is. We need to open those doors for the criminal justice system to look at people like Tony. He was trying to commit suicide; he wasn’t wanting to hurt anybody,” said Jones.
In 2010, Lester, 26, who was an SRPMIC member, tragically died in an Arizona prison while corrections officers stood by and offered no aid. He eventually died from loss of blood, and his family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections. Since this time, Jones and Lester’s family have fought to be Lester’s voice. Jones continues to fight for justice for the mentally ill within the criminal justice system.
“Tony was a brilliant young man when not in his mental distress. He was given every opportunity to have the best education money could afford. My sister, Eleanor (Tony’s mom), was a single mom who devoted her entire life to providing Tony with every opportunity to have the best childhood. Tony was her life. When asked many times what Tony wanted to do with his life he always answered, ‘I want to become a psychiatrist.’ He understood what it was [like] to [be] mentally challenged and wanted to assist those that struggled with mental illness,” said Jones.
Others honored at the walk were 11 local peace heroes, including Jennifer Longdon, who advocates for the rights of people with disabilities; Dr. Paul Eppinger, who advocates for human rights, equality and social justice and helped to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an Arizona holiday; and Zana Alattar, an Arizona State University student who founded Students Organize for Syria to raise awareness of the Syrian Revolution and help bring humanitarian relief. Walk participants carried signs honoring international peace heroes including Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan advocate for the rights of Indigenous people and reconciliation between ethnic groups; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; former U.S. president Jimmy Carter; Mahatma Gandhi; Coretta Scott King; and more. You can see why being named a Peace Hero is a big deal.
Mental illness has always had a stigma with it. Pairing a serious mental illness, like schizophrenia in Lester’s case, with the Department of Corrections, is one example, according to Jones and Lester’s family who continue to make it known that Lester did not belong in the ADOC in the first place. Jones and others from around the Valley continue to fight to increase public awareness about this topic.
“I will never forget the day in which [Tony] became an enrolled member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, he was overwhelmed with such cherished emotions of pride. He was brought to such humbled emotions. His enrollment within this Community was an incredible honor, an honor he never took lightly. His heart was filled with overwhelming pride and joy. [This is] a legacy that he could give to his daughter,” said Jones.
After a psychotic episode, where Lester tried to cut himself with a knife, two of Lester’s friends tried to stop him. Assault charges stemmed from that suicide attempt, and instead of a psychiatric hospital, Lester was sentenced to 12 years in prison and placed amongst the general prison population.
“Tony was ill and he should’ve never been in prison. Two people got hurt, but [one of the individuals] struggled to take the knife away. But they were young; they were kids, they were teenagers. That’s my avenue, is trying to [achieve] sentencing reform. There’s a lot of different things I am working on in the legislation and trying to change things, because it does need to be changed. They’re a broken, fragmented system,” added Jones.
Jones has fought tirelessly to educate and inform others about this injustice. “Since my nephew Tony Lester’s tragic death while in the custodial care of the Arizona Department of Corrections, I have been on a relentless endeavor to bring public enlightenment to the fragmented criminal justice/mental health care systems. For decades, our United States prisons have been the de facto mental health care providers in America,” said Jones.
“I’m trying to do a lot out in the community with people who have loved ones that are incarcerated. I’m a very passionate advocate. Native Americans, when they’re in the Department of Corrections, they’re treated so … it’s unimaginable. It’s unbelievable what happens. We can advocate for them and be an advocate [for them] to get the right care,” added Jones.
“It is my great hope to work until there are laws implemented to never allow another severely mentally ill [person] to suffer as our beloved Tony did. I will become a voice that cries from beyond for change, change that I believe can and will occur if we continue to fight to implement such change through proper legislation. I will forever be Tony’s voice,” said Jones.
“I made [a promise] to him as I said my goodbye’s. To ensure his voice was to be heard, that he deserved better that this cycle of deliberate indifference to human life that has been allowed to exist for decades without a second thought shall cease to exist. That there needs to be reform within our Mental Health/Criminal Justice Systems, and that we need to divert those that suffer with mental implementation of such pivotal legislation as is being introduced within our current legislative session will prevent such a senseless tragedy from occurring,” said Jones.
When asked how it made her feel to be recognized as a Peace Hero, Jones responded with, “I was deeply moved, humbled, completely honored, and moved with overwhelming pride realizing that Tony’s voice lives. I am deeply grateful for all the incredible work that continues to be done through AZ Legislation. I am overjoyed to give this recognition to Tony, my dear sister Eleanor, and his little girl Dawn, realizing that his life truly mattered, that in death Tony was able to make a difference he was never able to make in life.”
Jones continues to advocate for those who suffer with serious mental illness in prison and cannot seek justice for themselves.
For more information about the Peace Heroes Walk Around the World, visit www.peaceheroeswalk.org. For questions about Tony Lester or to find out how to get involved, contact Patti Jones at email@example.com.