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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 6, 2005

Gangs, drugs plagued Oklahoma prison

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Staff Writer

Monitoring reports by state prison officials describe gang violence, drug dealing and other problems at the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Oklahoma where hundreds of Hawai'i inmates are being held.

The situation was so bad that Department of Public Safety officials who visited the privately run prison in September recommended that nearly 800 Hawai'i convicts be removed unless conditions improve.

State officials and representatives of prison operator Corrections Corp. of America said last week the situation at Diamondback has improved in recent months, but the critical monitoring reports provide further evidence of troubles with Hawai'i's practice of shipping inmates to Mainland facilities.

Just last week, the head of the GRW Corp., which owns the Brush Correctional Facility near Denver, Colo., appeared in Honolulu at the request of state officials to explain sexual misconduct allegations made against prison staff by two Hawai'i women and six other female inmates. The two Hawai'i inmates have been returned to the Islands, and a corrections officers in Colorado has been charged with a felony in the case.

In Oklahoma, state monitors' reports from 2003 and 2004 indicate increasing concern about conditions at the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga, including drug dealing by gangs, inmate attacks on corrections officers and other inmates, and rising tensions in the prison.

Prison problems

Prison officials say conditions have improved at the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Oklahoma where Hawai'i inmates are being held, but reports by prison monitors over the past year paint an alarming picture. Problems include:

Inexperienced staff and supervisors in a facility led by eight different wardens since 1998.

Gang-related assaults on staff and inmates, and gang manipulation of staff.

Gang-related introduction of contraband, including drugs, with drug testing in 2003 indicating a significant problem. Prison officials say there have been fewer positive test results recently.

Female corrections officers who allegedly fell in love with inmates and allegedly helped the inmates smuggle in contraband. Six officers were fired.

Use of a "snitch" system in which inmates are pressured to inform on other inmates. Corrections officials contend this is a dangerous, unwise practice.

Department of Public Safety officials withheld about 70 pages of an Oct. 22 monitors' report — the most recent report available — detailing gang activity at Diamondback, because the officials said the information is confidential and, if released, could interfere with efforts to curb gang activity.

The portions of the reports that were released describe inexperienced line staff and supervisors struggling to cope with gang members, including some whom the monitors' believed should have been transferred to prisons designated for more dangerous inmates.

Ed Shimoda, institutions division administrator for the state Department of Public Safety, said conditions at the Oklahoma prison have improved since the Oct. 22 report was filed, and Hawai'i officials have no plans to remove inmates from the facility.

He said the Corrections Corp. of America transferred a deputy warden out of the prison, conducted additional training for staff, and brought together key members of the prison staff with Hawai'i and CCA employees who have experience dealing with Hawai'i prison gangs.

'Snitch' use abandoned

Diamondback officials also abandoned a "snitch" system that was used to gather information on gangs, Shimoda said. The Oct. 22 monitors' report warned that the snitch system, in which inmates are pressured by corrections officers to inform on other inmates, was dangerous and should be dropped.

"Resentment is building up with the inmates towards the Diamondback staff for rewarding inmates who give information" and punishing inmates who don't, the report said. Punishment included administrative segregation, whereby inmates are removed from the general prison population and privileges withheld.

"There is a high probability that a serious incident would occur towards the facility or staff member in the near future," the report said.

The monitors also criticized prolonged use of administrative segregation. The state's contract with CCA requires that disciplinary segregation not exceed 60 days, but Shimoda said some inmates were left in administrative segregation for a year or more.

Shimoda said the practice has been stopped.

A follow-up visit to Diamondback Correctional Facility by Hawai'i monitors last month found "the tension that was there is not there, and the inmates are compliant to the rules, policies and procedures," Shimoda said. "There seems to be no real big gang problems. Everything has subsided."

News of problems at the Oklahoma facility has filtered back to some inmates' families, including Beverly Miguel, 27, of Kahului, Maui. Her father, Gary Karagianes, 51, is serving a life sentence for murder, and has spent time in three Mainland prisons.

"He'll say things like, 'We need a lot of prayer over here,' but he'll never actually go on saying it's an unsafe environment. But I'm thinking that's probably because he doesn't want to worry me," Miguel said.

"I would definitely worry, but I definitely don't want to be kept in the dark either, because with the family members in this, we have to come together and voice our concerns for the safety of our families. We've got to."

Hawai'i is paying $30 million annually to house more than 1,600 men and women in privately run prisons in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Colorado and Arizona because of the state's crowded prison system.

Hawai'i prisoners have been at Diamondback since 1998. As of last week, the 2,160-bed, medium-security prison held 776 Hawai'i inmates, Shimoda said.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company did not receive copies of the Oct. 22 monitors' report until mid-December. He said the company provided a written response to state officials on Jan. 20 that outlined what it is doing about the problems.

Senior managers from CCA met with Hawai'i prison officials in January, and "it's my understanding from our folks that DPS officials were very satisfied with our responses as well as our plan of action," he said.

"We will continue to work very closely with our customers until they are completely satisfied," Owen said. "We don't stay in business if we don't."

Owen declined to release the details of the CCA response, saying that information should come from Hawai'i prison officials. The Department of Public Safety did not answer an Advertiser request last week for a copy of the company's Jan. 20 response.

Officials alarmed

The monitors' reports from 2003 and 2004 show that Hawai'i officials were alarmed about operations at the Oklahoma prison for at least 18 months.

Most of the concerns date to 2003, when 221 inmates were moved from the Florence Correctional Facility in Arizona to Diamondback. At that time, the monitors were worried gang factions from Florence would clash with factions at Diamondback.

Hawai'i monitor Howard Komori wrote in an Oct. 17, 2003, report that "there is a serious concern that conditions at Diamondback Correctional Facility are deteriorating."

Komori advised the state to freeze the number of Hawai'i inmates at Diamondback. "While CCA officials are trying to increase the count in Oklahoma, we are not convinced that Hawai'i's inmates are safely managed," he said in his report.

Problems cited included alarm that female corrections officers were "falling in love" with Hawai'i inmates, and smuggling drugs into the prison for them. The chief of security at Diamondback told Hawai'i monitors in June 2003 that prison staff believed 2 ounces of crystal methamphetamine were being smuggled into the prison each week.

Drug abuse identified

In April 2003, more than one out of every four inmates who underwent drug testing came up positive for drug use, according to the Oct. 17, 2003, report. That same report said six corrections workers had been fired for "inappropriate relationships" with inmates and activity related to drug use within the prison.

The number of positive drug test results dropped dramatically after the firings, and Shimoda said CCA sent a strong signal with the firing that drug smuggling and inappropriate relationships with inmates would not be tolerated.

Monitors' reports also indicated 30 to 40 Hawai'i inmates were involved in a disturbance in one of the prison modules on July 20, 2003. A far more serious disturbance broke out last May 14 when 500 inmates from Arizona rioted for several hours, demolishing fences and battling one another with construction equipment and other improvised weapons. About 100 inmates were injured.

An investigation by Arizona corrections officials found that inadequate staffing at Diamondback made it difficult to prevent the disturbance, and Arizona reduced the number of its inmates there from about 1,200 to about 750.

Cam Hunter, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said the number of Arizona inmates at the Oklahoma prison now stands at 804.

"We have a comfort level with increasing the number of inmates at the facility. The population appears to be stable," she said.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.