The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii claims the state Department of Public Safety is illegally withholding public records that attorneys representing families in wrongful prison death lawsuits have paid thousands of dollars to receive.
The ACLU of Hawaii filed a lawsuit Thursday, saying that a California law firm has paid more than $5,300 in fees but the state hasn’t released a single document. The firm — Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld LLP — wants access to documents concerning the state’s oversight of private mainland prisons where inmates from Hawaii are being held because of a lack of space in aging Hawaii facilities.
Among the requested records are documents concerning gang activity and segregation in the Arizona prison where two Hawaii men were killed.
Clifford Medina was strangled and Bronson Nunuha was stabbed in 2010 while at Saguaro Correctional Center. Their families say the deaths would have been prevented if the state didn’t ship prisoners to a mainland facility that neglects them. The families’ lawsuits are in the discovery phase.
The ACLU’s lawsuit details an attorney for the families making repeated requests for the documents and allowing for numerous extensions since September. At one point the state tells the attorney that lawyers for Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the prison, instructed the Public Safety Department not to produce any government records, in violation of state law, according to the complaint.
The firm paid $5,327.50 in fees and costs the department required to produce the requested records. But instead of releasing any documents, the department has "responded with empty promises to produce some government records at some undetermined point in the future, along with vague, unsubstantiated objections to producing broad categories of government records," the complaint states.
Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in a statement Friday, "We were served the lawsuit and it is being reviewed. We have been advised by our deputy attorney general to refrain from commenting on the case since it is pending litigation."
Daniel Gluck, senior staff attorney for ACLU of Hawaii, said, "Hawaii’s open records law is expansive and clear; agencies have an obligation to respond to requests for records in a thorough and timely manner. We have done all we can to resolve this matter outside the courts, but when the state ignores its obligations under the law, we have to step in."