The second death this year of a Hawaii inmate in an Arizona prison is setting off alarm bells with the state Department of Public Safety and lawmakers who want to scrutinize the arrangement of outsourcing local felons to privately operated mainland lockups.
Two investigators from the Public Safety Department will leave next week for Eloy, Ariz., where about 1,900 Hawaii prisoners are held at Saguaro Correctional Center.
No cause of death has been released yet for Clifford Medina, 23, who was found unresponsive in his cell Tuesday morning. An emergency medical services team tried unsuccessfully to revive him, according to a brief statement from the Corrections Corp. of America, which operates Saguaro.
"It is critical for us to find out what the autopsy says," said Public Safety Director Clayton Frank. "If this was something where we knew a person had a health-related reason, it would be one thing. But this is out of the ordinary because of his age. … From what we got from the facility, the cellmate called officials indicating (Medina) was unresponsive."
State investigators also went to Arizona after Bronson Nunuha, 26, was found dead from multiple stab wounds in his cell Feb. 18. He was the first Hawaii inmate killed in a private mainland prison since 1995, when the state began shipping prisoners away.
"What we found that time was the facility did whatever it could have done," Frank said. "I think they responded appropriately under the circumstances."
Two Hawaii inmates were indicted three weeks ago on capital murder charges for Nunuha’s death. They are Miti Maugaotega Jr., 24, serving a life sentence for first-degree attempted murder in the June 2003 shooting of Punchbowl resident Eric Kawamoto, and Micah Kanahele, 29, serving two 20-year sentences for the October 2003 shooting deaths of Greg Morishima at his Aiea home and Guylan Nuuhiwa in a Pearl City parking lot a week later.
The judge originally gave Maugaotega 11 life sentences for several charges stemming from the Punchbowl break-in and an earlier burglary in which he sexually assaulted and beat a 55-year-old woman.
The state Legislature sent to Gov. Linda Lingle for review a bill calling for an independent audit of the state’s contract with Corrections Corp.
"We need to re-evaluate the security and safety of Saguaro and our inmates and see if this is the best place and time to house our inmates," said Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee.
Medina was sent to Arizona about six months ago, Frank said. He was serving time for first-degree assault on a law enforcement officer, two counts of second-degree burglary, second-degree theft and bail jumping. He would have been eligible for parole in 2012.
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.