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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hawaii burglary inmate found slain in Arizona prison cell

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bronson Nunuha

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A private prison in Arizona where nearly 1,900 Hawai'i inmates are housed is in lockdown, and a state team of investigators is due to arrive there tonight, following the apparent stabbing death of a 26-year-old Hawai'i inmate who was behind bars for burglary.

The inmate, identified as Bronson Nunuha, was found dead Thursday in his cell at Saguaro Correctional Center. Authorities are investigating whether the killing may have been gang- related. They declined comment yesterday on whether they have any suspects.

Nunuha's death comes amid new scrutiny on the private Mainland prisons where Hawai'i inmates are shipped, and six months after female Hawai'i inmates at a Colorado prison were brought home following widespread allegations of sex abuse by staff there.

State Public Safety Department director Clayton Frank said Nunuha is the first Hawai'i inmate killed in a private prison on the Mainland since the state started housing inmates out of state in 1995. Others have been seriously assaulted.

"We've never had an inmate killed," Frank said. "Right now, the (Saguaro) facility warden is keenly aware of the situation. He has the facility in a lockdown as they're going through the investigation and ... (they'll take) whatever precautionary measures" are needed.

Frank said a team of state Public Safety investigators will conduct a review of the death to determine what happened, and whether security procedures at the prison need to be enhanced to prevent further deaths. Local Arizona police are also investigating.

Nunuha, who was incarcerated for three counts of second-degree burglary, was scheduled to return to the Islands in a few months to prepare for his release on Oct. 31.

Davina Waialae, Nunuha's mother, said yesterday that she believes her son had some involvement with a gang at the prison, but was not violent and was trying to get his act together before being released. She last spoke to her son on Jan. 23 in a video conference.

"He was almost ready to come home," she said.

Waialae said she believes another Hawai'i gang targeted her son.

She also said that she isn't pointing any fingers in the wake of the death, but will let investigators find the people responsible while she worries about her remaining family.

"I try to express to my family that it's not worth being mad at these people for what has happened," Waialae said. "We're trying to deal with it the best way we can."

Nunuha, the oldest of six children, had a 5-year-old son. The inmate had been at Saguaro for about four years, his mother said.

The 1,897-bed prison opened three years ago, and largely houses Hawai'i inmates.

Saguaro, in the town of Eloy in the southern part of Arizona, is owned by Corrections Corporation of America, which also owns the Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky, where allegations by inmates of widespread sexual abuse by guards and employees prompted Hawai'i in August to pull all 168 of its female inmates from the facility and bring them back to the Islands to serve their time.

The state spends about $61 million a year to house more than 1,900 male inmates on the Mainland.

Most 1,871 are at Saguaro but 54 are at Red Rock Correctional Center in Arizona.

Lawmakers yesterday expressed concern following Nunuha's killing, and said state public safety officials need to make sure security changes are made at the Arizona prison.

"What this will do is definitely focus attention to the facilities and the care and the processes involved in these Mainland prisons where we are paying a private operator" to house inmates, said state Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

Espero has long criticized the state's practice of shipping inmates to the Mainland, which it does because there is no room for them in Hawai'i facilities. Yesterday, he said the state's fiscal crisis means the practice likely won't stop soon, since the alternative is to build a new facility.

"In an ideal world, we wouldn't have to send them there," Espero said.

Still, lawmakers are advancing a bill that would audit the state's CCA contracts. The measure, HB 415, is designed to determine all the costs of sending inmates to the Mainland.

CCA declined comment on the Saguaro death yesterday, but in a statement said the facility was in lockdown and that prison officials were cooperating with Arizona police.

CCA said Nunuha was found at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in his cell. He was pronounced dead at 9:57 a.m., after efforts to revive him failed.