Hawaii inmates complain about safety in Arizona prison

Hawaii inmates complain about safety in Arizona prison
State Senator Will Espero
State Senator Will Espero
Peter Carlisle, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney
Peter Carlisle, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney
Myles Breiner, Attorney
Myles Breiner, Attorney

By Tim Sakahara - bio | email

Two Hawaii inmates were murdered in the last four months at a prison in Arizona and tonight we're hearing more complaints about safety.

Miti Maugaotega and Micah Kanahele were indicted on first degree murder charges. They're accused of stabbing fellow Hawaii inmate Bronson Nunuha several times in February.  Investigators believe it was a gang murder.  Nunuha was set to be released in October.

Both suspects were already serving lengthy prison terms. Kanahele was serving 25 years for shooting and killing a man in an Aiea carport, then killing another man in the parking lot of the Longs Drugs in Pearl City.

Maugaotega was described as a "walking crime wave" by a judge.  He is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole for shooting a man in the chest during a home invasion in Punchbowl.  Maugaotega was 17 at the time and had a lengthy criminal record.

Arizona prosecutors should decide in the next few days if they will pursue the death penalty option, even though Hawaii does not have capital punishment.

Earlier this month a second Hawaii inmate was killed.  Mahinauli Silva is accused of strangling his cell mate Clifford Medina.

Among the complaints from inmates is that there aren't enough guards and they are denied "comfort moves," meaning if cell mates have problems with each other they are not moved until there's an assault or worse.

Just today State Senator Will Espero received a letter from an inmate at Saguaro Correctional Facility in Arizona complaining about housing conditions and their safety.

"If you get this letter I guess it's an I told you so," Espero read from the letter. "Help before it gets worse and more people die or get hurt.  There's a lot to this death that you don't know and may never know."

He's got a drawer full of these types of letters.

"Inmates are human beings too and have needs and must be dealt with properly or else if you treat them like animals they'll act like animals," said Espero.

It's not just letters.  We spoke with an inmate by phone who wanted to remain anonymous for his safety.

"This facility (Saguaro) is greatly understaffed pursuant to the contract," he said. He also said he's worried about his safety, not necessarily from other inmates but from the prison staff.

Nearly 1,900 Hawaii inmates are incarcerated at Saguaro Prison in Arizona.  The state says it pays Corrections Corporation of American $60 million a year to lock them up.  That's about $43 million a year cheaper than keeping them here in Hawaii.

But some feel the savings isn't worth the cost.  Meaning with a private company making money the public gets no accountability.

"I think the system was broken in the first place. The problem is we contract with a facility or a company that has no incentive to provide rehabilitative services. It's a for profit operation," said Myles Breiner, Attorney.  "No one is saying let's coddle these people but you have to balance out. The reality is every single individual, the vast majority are going to return to Hawaii so we have every reason in the world to treat these people in a way where they can come back into the community and not be a risk and we're not doing that. We're closing our eyes. I want accountability."

"You know if they really want to complain about it don't do the crime," said Peter Carlisle, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney.

Carlisle says it's prison. It's not supposed to be a cake walk and sending them to Arizona is the best option otherwise they'd kill each other in Hawaii.

"We've had deaths in all of our prison systems here in the State of Hawaii.  We've had people killed in prison regularly, we've had people commit suicide, when you're dealing with an unstable and dangerous population like this it's not unusual for them to do the most horrendous, horrific and violent acts," said Carlisle.

Today Hawaii Department of Public Safety Director Clayton Frank said he's heard the complaints, but says the prison's process is appropriate and he has not seen anything that would raise a red flag.

He also says Saguaro is accredited by the American Correctional Association, which is difficult to get.  None of Hawaii's prisons accredited.

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