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Abercrombie pledges isle inmates' return

A suit against an Arizona prison spurs the move

By B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 9:51 p.m. HST, Feb 11, 2011

Gov. Neil Abercrombie promised swift action to bring back all Hawaii inmates serving sentences in mainland prisons in light of a new lawsuit alleging their mistreatment by guards at an Arizona facility.

Hawaii inmates on the mainland


At Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona


At Red Rock Correctional Center in Arizona
"I intend to work as quickly as I can to bring all prisoners back," Abercrombie said yesterday at a news conference in his office. "I don't want to send anybody out of the state."

Abercrombie this month named Jodie Maesaki-Hirata, acting warden of the Waiawa Correctional Facility, as head of the Department of Public Safety and said yesterday he would need more time to put together the team to examine the problem.

"I will be working with the Department of Public Safety and with the Judiciary and with the Legislature to forge a comprehensive and integrated program to deal with the question of incarceration," he said.

Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons, applauded Abercrombie's plan, saying most of the state's inmates are nonviolent offenders or qualify for minimum security.

"They should be back in Hawaii preparing to successfully re-enter their communities," she said. "Nobody can successfully re-enter from Arizona.

"To me, they've got to come back to Hawaii with a year or two left on their sentences to get in touch with their families and that kind of thing."

The Circuit Court lawsuit was filed this week on behalf of 18 island inmates at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., a 1,897-bed prison owned by Corrections Corp. of America.

Saguaro is home to about 1,800 male inmates from Hawaii. About 50 more are at a separate CCA prison in Arizona.

The lawsuit filed this week by Honolulu attorneys Michael Green and John Rapp alleges inmates were abused and their families in Hawaii threatened in retaliation for a guard being injured while trying to break up a fight.

Inmates were "beaten and assaulted, including by having their heads banged on tables while they were stripped of their underwear and while their hands were handcuffed behind their backs," according to the lawsuit. Guards also threatened to harm the inmates' families, saying they had all of their emergency contact information and knew where to find them, the complaint states.

The lawsuit names CCA, the state of Hawaii and the state's contract monitor, John Ioane, as defendants.

The Saguaro facility has come under scrutiny before.

Earlier this year, the public safety department sent a team to examine practices at the site after deaths of two Hawaii inmates in February and June. Three inmates, all from Hawaii, have been charged in the deaths and could face the death penalty if convicted in Arizona.

The lawsuit alleges the latest mistreatment occurred in July.

Hawaii spends about $61 million a year to house male inmates on the mainland because there is not enough space for them in prisons here. Last year, after female inmates from Hawaii alleged widespread sexual abuse by guards and employees at a CCA facility in Kentucky, the state pulled all 168 of them from the prison and brought them back to the islands to serve their time.

Former Gov. Linda Lingle this year vetoed a bill that called for a financial and management audit of the state's contract to house prisoners at Saguaro, saying the measure would force the auditor to go beyond her duties and make a policy judgment about whether the state should continue to send prisoners to the mainland.

Abercrombie called the policy of sending prisoners away "dysfunctional."

"It costs money. It costs lives. It costs communities," he said. "It destroys families. It is dysfunctional all the way around — socially, economically, politically and morally.

"We want to do a lot more in the way of intervention. We want to do a lot more in the way of programs."

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