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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Arizona prison warden replaced after questions of Hawai'i inmates' safety

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Capitol Bureau Chief

The warden at a privately run Arizona prison has been replaced after Hawai'i corrections officials complained that management problems at the facility were jeopardizing the safety of Hawai'i inmates serving time there.

Florence Correctional Center Warden Pablo Sedillo was replaced by Don Stewart late last week or early this week, said Ted Sakai, director of the Hawai'i state Department of Public Safety.

The troubling incidents at Florence include inmate gangs, serious beatings of several inmates, a riot last September and the death of an inmate April 16 from what prison officials suspect was a drug-induced heart attack.

Sakai said the medium security prison seems to be well-designed, but the state's monitoring team turned up problems with the way it was being run.

"The concern was for the overall management of the place, and the team expressed to me that unless the management tightened up, the safety of the general population was compromised," he said.

Sakai said the state did not ask that the warden be replaced, but the prison company apparently thought the move was necessary.

Sakai said the problems in Arizona are the most serious Hawai'i officials have encountered since they began paying Corrections Corporation of America almost three years ago to hold Hawai'i convicts in prisons on the Mainland.

The company now holds about 1,100 male inmates from Hawai'i, including about 550 at Florence. The state will pay Corrections Corporation $16 million to $17 million this year to house the prisoners and provide educational and other programs.

The problems at Florence come as the state is putting the finishing touches on a three-year contract extension with Corrections Corporation to allow the company to continue to hold the Hawai'i prisoners.

Sakai said the problems at Florence will not affect contract negotiations with the company "because they've done a good job for us in the three years."

"Their response has been quick and their response has been strong, so we're kind of pleased with that," Sakai said.

Officials at Florence did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.

The Florence facility southeast of Phoenix, which opened in December 1999, has 1,600 beds.

State officials dispatched an inspection team to Florence in April after the deaths of Iulani Amani, 23, and John Kia, 41. Kia's death on April 25 was ruled to be from natural causes, but prison officials suspect Amani died on April 16 of a heart attack induced by an overdose of cocaine or methamphetamine.

Three Hawai'i inmates were also briefly hospitalized last month, and a corrections officer was seriously injured in a disturbance in the facility last September, Sakai said.

Corrections Corporation officials locked down the entire facility for eight days and searched the inmates' cells for contraband.

They also "isolated some people they thought were the cause of the problem," Sakai said.

He said the state will give the company time to solve the problems at Florence and will then reinspect the prison.