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CCA Prison Under Gang Control: Death and Injury Suits Filed

Two suits were filed against Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) in less than a week. On April 15, 2003 the family of Iulai Amani sued CCA and the state of Hawaii for "wrongful conduct" resulting in Amani's death. The lawsuit came exactly two years from the date Amani died in the Florence Correctional Center (FCC) in Arizona.

A week earlier Victoriano Ortiz also sued CCA and the state of Hawaii for a severe beating he received at the hands of gang members in FCC. Both incidents occurred less than a week apart; both men were transfer prisoners from Hawaii, being housed in the private prison.

Amani, then 24, died of a heart attack induced by a drug overdose when packets of methamphetamine he had swallowed burst open in his stomach. Amani was a member of the United Samoan Organization (USO) which, at the time of his death, had complete control of the CCA prison.

USO took over the Florence prison on September 12, 2000 "during a riot for power," investigators said. Since that time, gang members openly and actively controlled "the trafficking, use, sale of illicit drugs, the making and use of swipe [a prison-made alcoholic beverage] ... and violent acts to inmates as well as staff," said Gang Intelligence Sgt. Patrick Kawai. "It is known that every recent major assault that happened was related to the USO family," said Kawai after the 2001 audit. The USO also trafficked in sex with female prisoners detained by Immigration. Reports did not say if the sex was consensual.

James Kawashima, attorney for Amani's family, says that Amani was forced to join USO and "was being used by the gang as a mule to smuggle drugs." He points to the fact that Amani had no prior history of drug use and that his death was due to "a drug overdose, the mechanism of which was inconsistent with recreational use but consistent with drug smuggling under the direction of" the USO.

Sgt. Kawai's report admits that "some (inmates) are joining the USO family just to be protected by it. Other innocent nonmembers are simply just getting beat on for no reason at all. Inmates are afraid," he said. Kawashima also says that FCC has been uncooperative in relinquishing Amani's autopsy report and other information. The auditor's report confirms that prisoners are "indicating FCC is covering up chain of events leading to Iulai Amani's death."

Victoriano Ortiz was beaten by as many as four USO members on the FCC rec-yard on August 12, 2001. Gang members had been drinking heavily prior to the attack. Ortiz's beating was so brutal that he had to be airlifted to a local hospital where he required treatment for seven days. The rec-yard incident involved a total of twenty-three prisoners.

Because the USO had so effectively taken over the prison, guards could only watch as Ortiz was beaten. Guards even admitted being fearful of the gang. One guard "openly admitted to `bringing in drugs' [as] protection from the USO's."

In his lawsuit, Ortiz alleges that immediately after the Sept. 2000 takeover, then warden Pablo Sedillo "told the USO's that they could do whatever they wanted as long as they didn't hurt the guards." Ortiz maintains that "in doing so Sedillo made the USOs...managers of the facility, jeopardizing the safety of all non-USO-affiliated residents."

Ortiz allegations are not as far-fetched as they sound. After the audit, Sgt. Kawai wrote in his report, "At this point we know that the USO family runs the facility." This statement spurred Ted Sakai, then Hawaii Department of Public Safety Director to inform CCA that Sedillo was using the USO to govern the prison.

Under the tenure of Warden Sedillo, FCC had become so violent that two of the female auditors assigned to inspect the prison in April 2001 were not allowed inside for fear of their safety. That month alone had produced two dead prisoners, six more who had been assaulted and a riot that left a guard with six stitches.

Through it all CCA insisted that gang activity in FCC was minimal. Auditors said otherwise.

During the auditor's inspection, Kawai personally noted that guards "wear no restraints on their person should the need occur to restrain a hostile inmate. I never once observed an officer frisk search or strip-search an inmate. I never once observed an officer go through any inmate's property or search anything an inmate was carrying ... Furthermore, it would appear that inmates have no fear to transport anything on their persons."

During the tour Sgt. Kawai also found a 5-gallon bucket of swipe in the kitchen. One prisoner admitted to being drunk when he participated in the riot that injured Ortiz. Auditors concluded that "there appears to be widespread drug introduction into the facility by (FCC) staff members" and labeled the unit a "prison in turmoil."

Because Hawaii's prisons are overcrowded and the islands offer limited physical space they have quickly become CCA's largest customer. The island-state pays CCA $20 million a year to house 1,100 prisoners. In 2001, 550 of those prisoners were at FCC. Over 100 were USO members.

CCA maintains two types of prisons in Arizona. One type houses Arizona prisoners and is under the watchful eye of the Arizona DOC. The second type, however, houses out-of-state prisoners over which the state has no authority at all. According to former Department of Corrections Director Terry Stewart, "Right now, you can build a prison anywhere in Arizona, and the only thing you have to meet is the building code."

Presently, CCA's contract with Arizona requires only that they report any escapes and reimburse the state for any assistance in capturing escapees. Following the CCA scandal, Stewart asked the legislature to give him more control over All of Arizona's private prisons. CCA had filled the Florence facility with some of Hawaii's most violent offenders. FCC is only an hour away from both Tucson and Phoenix.

Stewart suggested that the state ban CCA from importing sex offenders and other maximum security prisoners. Presently, California does not allow any out-of-state prisoners; Oklahoma does not accept sex offenders and even the lock-em-up state of Texas has become more restrictive. Not surprisingly, however, Stewart's proposals died in the 2000-2001 legislature. Private prison vendors are notoriously generous with their campaign contributions.

Ironically, Sen. Pete Rios, D-Hayden, who introduced the bill that would have provided more prison oversight, was awaiting primary election returns in September 2000 when he learned that all major highways out of Florence had been blocked because of a hostage situation at FCC. The 90-minute melee, which began over how some rice was cooked, left three guards injured and a variety of destruction, including broken windows and smashed televisions and computers.

To this point Arizona has not indicated that they will restrict or otherwise sanction CCA. Publicly traded, CCA is the largest private prison vendor in the United States. The Nashville, Tennessee based company has 5,600 prison beds in Arizona alone. CCA employs 1,300 Arizona residents bringing the state $40 million a year in wages and $2 million annually in local taxes.

CCA recently transferred 200 of the Hawaii' prisoners to other facilities in order to make room for federal prisoners who will be sent to FCC. CCA collects $91 per day for federal prisoners and only $61 per day for Hawaii's prisoners. About 400 island prisoners will remain at the Arizona prison.

Sources: Arizona Daily Star, Arizona Star Bulletin, Honolulu Advertiser

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