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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 1, 2001

Arizona prison in 'turmoil'

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief

A team sent to check on conditions at an Arizona prison that holds more than 560 Hawai'i inmates conducted only a limited inspection because of the "hostile environment," including the potential for violence, according to state reports obtained by The Advertiser.

The desert prison, where two Hawai'i inmates have died in recent months, was described in the April 30 report as "a facility in turmoil," and other officials described lax security conditions, reports of widespread drug use and domination by members of a prison gang.

The Florence, Ariz., prison is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Hawai'i pays CCA about $17 million a year to house about 1,100 state inmates on the Mainland, including the prisoners at Florence.

The state contract with CCA expired yesterday, and the state is preparing to sign a new contract with the company despite the problems at the Florence prison. CCA will charge the state more per inmate under the new agreement, but state Public Safety Director Ted Sakai declined to release details about the new contract until it is finished.

Sakai acknowledged the problems in Florence but said the state should continue to contract with CCA.

"I think it's working out generally with the company," he said. "I think this facility wasn't well managed, but you have to consider that for the most part of our contract, the large majority of our inmates were in other facilities which have been operating satisfactorily."

Sakai said a follow-up visit to the Florence prison in early June suggested the facility is calmer, and that more inmate educational and rehabilitation programs are operating. But the June reports also cite nearly a dozen areas where CCA apparently is not meeting the terms of its contract with the state.

The reports by the monitoring team highlight problems with an inexperienced prison staff and refer to "widespread" drug smuggling into the facility by prison staff. One prison official admitted to the Hawai'i inspectors that he smuggled marijuana into the prison because he was afraid of gang members incarcerated there, according to the reports.

The officer, who is not named in the reports, told the monitors he "traded drugs for protection." Sakai said that officer no longer works at the Florence prison.

Sgt. Patrick Kawai, a Hawai'i gang intelligence officer who was sent to inspect the Florence facility, reported in April that "I never once while at FCC observed an officer frisk search or strip search an inmate. I never once observed an officer go through any inmate's property, or search anything an inmate was carrying."

That lack of "simple security measures" allows inmates to move weapons and other contraband, Kawai said in his report.

According to the April report by the team that visited Florence, tours of the inmate housing units, recreational areas, prison industries facilities, inmate work programs, library, visitation area and chaplain's area were not conducted "due to the hostile environment" in the prison.

Sakai said that meant the team did not conduct the usual, complete inspections of the prison. But he said at least some members of the Hawai'i inspection team visited much of the facility.

"There were two men and two women on the team. Because of the gang activity and what they perceived to be dangers to staff and inmates, the women did not look at the entire facility. I think the two men, the captain and the sergeant, inspected most of the facility," he said.

Among the warning signs that triggered concern in Hawai'i were six reported assaults on inmates at the facility in April, and an April 11 riot in a recreation yard that involved 23 inmates. Two prison officials were injured and an inmate was seriously injured in the prison yard melee, according to the prison reports.

After the April visit, Sakai complained to CCA of an "unacceptable level of violence" at Florence. He demanded changes, and CCA responded with an eight-day lockdown at the prison while corrections officials searched the facility for contraband.

A total of 41 inmates suspected of gang involvement were later shipped to another CCA facility in New Mexico. Two of those prisoners have since been moved again to a "supermax" prison in Colorado, and the rest are still in New Mexico, Sakai said.

CCA sent its own management team to Florence and removed Warden Pablo Sedillo, who was replaced by Frank Luna.

In a telephone interview last week, Luna declined to comment on the contents of the reports because he hasn't read them. But he said there have not been any significant incidents at the prison since he took over six weeks ago.

The Advertiser has been seeking reports about the Florence inspections for some time but state officials have been reluctant to provide them. When the April report was first released, most of it was blacked out by officials citing security concerns. After further requests from the newspaper and intervention by the governor's office, the reports were released.

The reports filed by Hawai'i corrections officials describe efforts to gather information about a prison gang known as United Samoan Organization or "USO Family," which prison officials described in reports as "Hawai'i's first bona-fide prison gang" in nearly 20 years.

The gang included about 95 inmates from Hawai'i who were serving time at Florence. Members were allegedly involved in attacks on inmates and prison staff, drug trafficking, and having sex with female detainees who were placed at the Florence facility by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, according to the state reports.

"The gang problem takes a long time to solve, but we think we've got the key people isolated so they won't contaminate the rest of the population and intimidate the staff. And I think Frank Luna's going to be much tougher with the gangs," Sakai said.

Two Hawai'i inmates died at Florence in April, including one alleged gang member who prison officials said died after swallowing a package of drugs in an attempt to smuggle them into the facility. Preliminary reports are that inmate Iulani Amani, 23, died of a drug-induced heart attack April 16.

Inmate John Kia, 41, also died at Florence on April 25. His death was ruled to be from natural causes.

The monitoring reports also reveal that a year after the first Hawai'i prisoners were sent to Florence, the prison still does not offer educational and rehabilitation programs to inmates that are required by CCA's contract with the state.

The contract with CCA calls for programs for all qualified general population inmates to participate in "meaningful" vocational, educational, drug treatment or other treatment and counseling programs. The cost of those programs is included in the $42 per day the state pays CCA to house Hawai'i inmates.

Asked about shortcomings in inmate programs, warden Luna replied: "We've instituted some programs here. I'll leave it at that."

Luna said the prison, located about 45 miles southeast of Phoenix, is setting up woodworking operations and a computer lab, and has created a new substance abuse program the has 40 inmates enrolled.

When asked if CCA is now providing the programs required by the contract, Sakai replied: "I don't think so, but again we understand it's going to take some time. ... For example, they've committed to starting the substance abuse treatment program. They're going to have to get the staff together. I don't know if they have it yet, and then it takes time to build these programs up."

According to the April report by the monitors, Florence initially offered inmates only a basic mental health course. CCA recently added anger management and some classes related to substance abuse. Educational programs were added last March, more than a year after Hawai'i inmates first arrived at the facility, according to the report.

According to the April monitor's report, of the more than 560 inmates at Florence at the time, 33 were assigned to educational programs, a dozen were in substance abuse treatment and 15 were in a hobby craft program.

Inmates have complained about the lack of educational, sex offender and drug treatment programs at Florence, in part because parole often depends on whether inmates complete required programs.

Sakai acknowledged virtually no inmate programs were available for the first 100 inmates who were shipped to Florence about a year ago.

"We realize that, but we had been talking to (CCA) about getting more inmates to Arizona because we understood their position that with 100 inmates they aren't going to provide the full range of programs," Sakai said. "We just didn't have enough inmates to justify, for example, creating a whole module for substance abuse treatment."

The June report also said Florence is failing to conduct random urinalysis of inmates, which would give an indication of the scope of any drug smuggling into the facility. A testing program is required under the CCA contract with the state, and Luna said he has agreed to establish such testing.

The June report also quotes a Florence prison official as admitting the prison medical unit is "grossly understaffed."

Hawai'i has been sending prison inmates to privately run Mainland correctional facilities since 1995. The state initially placed inmates in Texas facilities run by the Bobby Ross Group, and in 1998 began moving inmates into CCA prisons in Minnesota, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

Oklahoma and Minnesota won't accept some Hawai'i inmates because of the kinds of crimes they committed or their security classifications. The first hundred Hawai'i prisoners were moved to Arizona because Arizona would accept them, and CCA had an empty facility there, Sakai said.

"We didn't have too many alternatives," Sakai said. "We know these were problem inmates."

Reach Kevin Dayton at 525-8070 or kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.