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Arizona CCA Prison Found 'In Turmoil'

Hawaii officials found a prison "in turmoil" while inspecting a Florence, Arizona prison where about 560 Hawaii prisoners are being warehoused. The prison is operated by Nashville based Corrections Corporation of America.

An inspection of the prison conducted in April 2001 by a team of two men and two women was unable to access all areas of the prison because of the potential for violence, according to state reports obtained by the Honolulu Advertiser . The April report stated that tours of the prisoner housing units, recreational areas, prison industries facilities, prisoner work programs, library, visitation area, and chaplain's area were not conducted "due to the hostile environment in the prison."

The desert prison, located 45 miles southeast of Phoenix, was described in the April 30, 2001, report as a "facility in turmoil" with lax security conditions, widespread drug use, and domination by members of a prison gang known as the United Samoan Organization (USO). The USO was described in reports as Hawaii's first bona fide prison gang in nearly 20 years. Gang members were allegedly involved in attacks on prisoners and guards, drug trafficking, and having sex with female INS detainees held at the Florence prison.

Two Hawaii prisoners died at Florence in April 2001, including one alleged gang member who prison officials said died after swallowing a package of drugs in an attempt to smuggle them into the prison. Six other Hawaii prisoners were reported assaulted at the prison during April. On April 11, 2001, a riot in a recreation yard, which involved 23 prisoners, resulted in the injury of two prison guards and the serious injury of a prisoner, according to prison reports. The rash of incidents triggered the inspection by Hawaii officials.

The reports revealed that the prison still doesn't offer educational and rehabilitative programs to prisoners as required by CCA's contract with Hawaii. The cost of those programs is included in the $42 per day the state pays CCA to warehouse Hawaii prisoners. According to the April report, of the more than 560 Hawaii prisoners at Florence at the time, 33 were assigned to educational programs, a dozen were in substance abuse treatment, and 15 were in a hobby craft program.

After the April inspection, Hawaii Public Safety Director Ted Sakai complained to CCA of an "unacceptable level of violence", at Florence. CCA responded with an eight-day lockdown at the prison while officials searched for contraband. A total of 41 suspected gang members were later shipped to another CCA prison in New Mexico, and two of those prisoners were later moved to a Colorado supermax prison.

CCA also removed Florence warden Pablo Sedillo, replacing him with Frank Luna. Luna declined to comment on the reports because he hadn't read them, but he said there have not been any significant incidents at the prison since be took over in May 2001.

Sakai said a follow-up visit to Florence in early June 2001 suggested the prison is calmer, and that more prison educational and rehabilitation programs are operating. But the June report also cites nearly a dozen areas of non-compliance of the contract terms signed by CCA, and the report quotes a prison official admitting the prison medical facility is "grossly understaffed." One prison guard, who no longer works at Florence, said he was afraid of gang members and admitted trading drugs for his own protection.

While acknowledging the problems at Florence, Sakai said Hawaii should continue to contract with CCA. "I think it's working out generally well with the company," he said. The state was negotiating a new contract in July 2001 with CCA that will increase the amount charged by the company for each prisoner.

Hawaii officials at first attempted to suppress public access to the Florence reports. The first request by the Honolulu Advertiser for the April report was met with an almost totally blacked out copy by Hawaii officials citing security concerns. It required the intervention of the governor's office to get the reports released uncensored.

Source: Honolulu Advertiser.

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