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HRDC Files Suit on Behalf of Family of Hawaii Prisoner Murdered at CCA Facility

On February 15, 2012, the family of Bronson Nunuha, a 26-year-old Hawaii prisoner who was brutally murdered at a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) prison in Arizona in 2010, filed suit in circuit court in Honolulu against CCA and the State of Hawaii.

The lawsuit was based in part on CCA’s business model of understaffing its prisons and cutting corners to increase the company’s profit margin. Those systemic practices violated fundamental safety requirements and subjected Hawaii prisoners to rampant gang violence in understaffed housing units. Bronson Nunuha was just months away from being released when CCA placed him in a unit with violent, gang-affiliated prisoners.

“Bronson’s death was senseless and preventable. CCA and the State of Hawaii needlessly put him in danger,” said attorney Kenneth Walczak with the law firm of Rosen, Bien & Galvan, LLP, which, along with the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC – the parent organization of Prison Legal News) and the ACLU of Hawaii, represents the Nunuha family.

“Private prisons are known to have higher levels of violence due to understaffing and high staff turnover that result from their goal of generating ever-greater profits,” added HRDC director Paul Wright. “But prison companies are not allowed to make profit more important than human life. Unfortunately, CCA’s desire to turn a corporate profit needlessly cost Bronson Nunuha his life.”

Bronson was transferred to CCA’s Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona as part of a controversial practice in which Hawaii prisoners are sent to private, for-profit mainland facilities. He was serving a 5-year sentence for burglary and property damage when he was killed by other prisoners. Bronson left behind a grieving mother, sisters and his seven-year-old son. Under state law, state officials were required to return Bronson to Hawaii when he had only a year left on his sentence, so he could complete pre-release programs. The state ignored that law.

Bronson was murdered in CCA’s “Special Housing Incentive Program,” or SHIP. The SHIP program places rival gang members and prisoners who do not belong to any gang together in one unit, where they share recreation time and sometimes even the same cell. Predictably, this practice resulted in violent incidents, including Bronson’s murder. Only one CCA employee, a correctional counselor, was present to oversee approximately 50 prisoners in the SHIP unit where Bronson was housed.

While at CCA Saguaro, Bronson had asked to be removed from the SHIP unit but CCA staff denied his requests. On February 18, 2010, two gang members attacked Bronson in his cell; the cell door had been opened by a CCA employee, who then left. Bronson was beaten and stabbed over 100 times. His assailants carved the initials of their gang into his chest and even had time to leave his cell, shower and change clothes before CCA staff knew Bronson had been murdered.

One of Bronson’s assailants, Miti Maugaotega, Jr., had previously been involved in several attacks on other prisoners at a different CCA prison. Maugaotega, a gang member, was serving multiple life sentences for attempted murder, rape and armed robbery. CCA and Hawaii officials knew that Maugaotega was dangerous and capable of extreme violence but still placed him in the same unit as Bronson, a non-violent offender close to finishing a 5-year sentence.

CCA facilities that house Hawaii prisoners have been plagued with problems in recent years. In addition to Bronson’s murder, another Hawaii prisoner, Clifford Medina, was killed at the Saguaro facility in June 2010. In 2009, Hawaii removed all of its female prisoners from CCA’s Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky following a sex scandal that resulted in at least six CCA employees being charged with rape or sexual misconduct. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.16; Oct. 2009, p.40]. Eighteen Hawaii prisoners sued CCA in December 2010, alleging that CCA employees – including the warden – had threatened, stripped, beaten and kicked them in retaliation for an incident in which a guard was injured. Other Hawaii prisoners filed suit in 2011, contending that CCA had refused to let them participate in native Hawaiian religious practices.

“Why the State of Hawaii continues to contract with this company is mystifying, frankly,” said Wright. “After two murders, disturbances, allegations of rampant sexual abuse and a lack of accountability by CCA employees, it’s fairly obvious that CCA is unable or unwilling to safely house Hawaii prisoners, and the state is unable or unwilling to adequately monitor conditions at mainland prisons.”

ACLU of Hawaii Senior Staff Attorney Dan Gluck added, “The ACLU has long warned the state about the damaging effects of its short-sighted policy of shipping prisoners to the mainland. This tragedy is bound to be repeated unless Hawaii adopts more effective prison policies.”

The State of Hawaii houses around one-third of its prisoners in privately-operated mainland facilities due to a lack of bedspace on the islands. The state is currently pursuing a “justice reinvestment initiative” to reduce its prison population and lower recidivism, which is expected to lead to the return of Hawaii prisoners from CCA facilities. The justice reinvestment initiative is a partnership between the state, the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

“We are committed to bringing Hawaii’s prisoners home, and this partnership will help us develop a comprehensive, multifaceted plan to see that this happens,” said Governor Neil Ambercrombie.

Returning the state’s prisoners to Hawaii would ensure closer connections with their families, as visitation at CCA Saguaro is mainly conducted by video, and long distance phone calls from Arizona to Hawaii are expensive. It would also end the controversial practice of transferring Hawaii prisoners to mainland facilities – a practice that was strongly criticized by the State Auditor’s office in a December 2010 report. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.38]. It may also save lives, as Bronson Nunuha would likely still be alive had he not been sent to CCA Saguaro and housed in the prison’s SHIP unit.

Bronson’s family is represented by the San Francisco law firm of Rosen, Bien & Galvan, LLP, by HRDC chief counsel Lance Weber and by the ACLU of Hawaii. A press conference was held on February 15, 2012, the day the lawsuit was filed; Walczak, Gluck, PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann and Bronson’s mother, Davina Waialae, spoke at that event, which resulted in extensive media coverage. See: Estate of Nunuha v. State of Hawaii, Circuit Court of the First Circuit, State of Hawaii, Case No. 12-1-0441-02.

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Related legal case

Estate of Nunuha v. State of Hawaii