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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 22, 2007

Arizona prison mistakes trouble Hawaii officials

 •  Isle inmates moving to Arizona prison

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Clayton Frank

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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The private prison company that holds Hawai'i convicts on the Mainland acknowledged that multiple cell doors accidentally opened on four occasions at one of the company's new Arizona prisons, including one incident where alleged prison gang members used the opportunity to attack a Hawai'i inmate.

The state's highest prison official said he's troubled that Corrections Corporation of America did not immediately notify the state about the incidents.

The statement released by CCA announced that "appropriate disciplinary action was taken on officers in regard to four separate inadvertent cell door openings" at the Red Rock Correctional Center. The statement did not offer any specifics, and a company spokeswoman said in an e-mail that CCA would not provide additional details.

Hawai'i Department of Public Safety interim director Clayton Frank said CCA did not tell Hawai'i prison authorities about some of the incidents until Wednesday night, after The Advertiser published complaints from inmates about repeated cases where doors opened unexpectedly and improperly, leaving protective custody prisoners vulnerable to attacks by prison gangs.

Frank said he is "troubled" that CCA did not tell Hawai'i about some of the incidents. The company explained it did not immediately report some cases where doors opened because those incidents did not involve attacks on Hawai'i inmates, Frank said.

"Right now, I have some serious concerns and doubt of whether they are providing us with everything," he said. "If it involves our inmates, I want to make sure that what they're giving us is true and accurate.

"I want something to go directly to corporate office up there that says you guys have got to be candid when we ask questions."

The state pays about $50 million a year to house 2,100 convicts in Mainland CCA prisons because there is no room for them in Hawai'i facilities.


In the most serious of the incidents at Red Rock, Hawai'i inmate John Kupa was stabbed with a homemade knife on June 26 after more than half of the cell doors abruptly opened in his housing unit. That incident is being blamed on an error by a corrections officer.

Protective custody inmates are housed in that prison pod along with general population inmates. That mix requires that prisoners there be separated constantly, and the doors there are never supposed to open simultaneously, prison officials said.

Hawai'i Public Safety officials say that when the doors opened, Kupa and a 44-year-old inmate allegedly attacked Hawai'i convict Sidney Tafokitau. During the struggle, prison officials say Tafokitau allegedly stabbed Kupa. Tafokitau, a protective custody inmate, has said he acted in self-defense, and said he got the knife by taking it away from one of his attackers.

Kupa, 36, was stabbed in the lower left back, and was treated and released from an Arizona hospital.

The Red Rock stabbing marks the second time in two years a Hawai'i inmate has been injured when cell doors unexpectedly opened in a CCA prison living unit where inmates were supposed to be locked down.

In the earlier case, 20 cell doors in a disciplinary unit of the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi suddenly opened at 2:48 a.m. on July 17, 2005, releasing about three dozen Hawai'i convicts from their cells. Inmates then attacked Hawai'i inmate Ronnie Lonoaea, who was beaten so badly he suffered brain damage, and is now confined to a wheelchair.

Hawai'i prison officials this week revealed the doors opened in Mississippi in that 2005 disturbance because a corrections officer had been "compromised" by a prison gang.

Lawyer Myles Breiner, who is suing the state and CCA on behalf of Lonoaea and his family, said Lonoaea will need extensive medical care for the rest of his life, care that is expected to "easily" cost $10 million to $11 million.

Breiner said he is also gathering information about attacks triggered by doors that improperly opened at Red Rock, and is considering filing suit on behalf of inmates that were attacked or injured in those cases.


"Their doors are opening, and the only people responsible for the management and security is CCA," Breiner said. He said some of the lapses at Red Rock seem to be caused by human error or problems with the equipment, while the inmates suspect some of the other incidents have been deliberate.

"Whether it's corruption or construction, CCA is still responsible," Breiner said.

The statement from CCA said the company has taken corrective measures. "We stand by our reputation as a provider of quality corrections management services, and will continue to assess our operational activities to further refine and improve our safety processes," the company said.

CCA said most of the Hawai'i inmates being segregated and locked down for disciplinary reasons will be moved to the nearby Saguaro Correctional Center, a step that will separate them from the protective custody prisoners.

The number of corrections officers working in the segregation unit has been increased and includes veteran corrections officers, and a formal "intensive" training program is being established for crews in the segregation units to make sure the staff can properly operate the locking system, according to the CCA statement.

The electronic locking system in the unit is being reviewed, and while the system is being studied doors are being operated manually in the segregation unit where the June 26 stabbing occurred, the company said.

The manufacturer of the locking operating system has also added an additional safety feature to the equipment, CCA said.

Frank said CCA overall has done a "tremendous" job managing Hawai'i inmates, and incidents will happen in prison. However, Frank said he wants the problems with the doors solved.

"This is one incident too many, and to me the line has pretty much been drawn here that I want to see some results over there, I don't want to see our people getting injured because of staff not doing what they're supposed to do or...glitches in their control stations," he said.

"I have an obligation to these inmates, and these incidents, I read the response and it's not totally acceptable to me," he said. "The thing that I want to make sure is, when we ask for things, tell us, and if we're not satisfied, I think we have an obligation to seek assistance elsewhere."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.