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Mom’s E-mail Forces Hawaiian Lawmakers to Tour “Hellhole” Prison

It took one mother of a complaint to get lawmakers in September 2011 to visit a dilapidated prison in Hawaii. Prison officials, however, put on a good show for their guests.

The grumblings about Hawaii’s prison conditions are constant. But it was an e-mail from a mom in California, Diane DiMaria, whose son is serving at least 120 years and is currently incarcerated at the Halawa Correctional Facility, that finally prompted action.

“The men are very distressed that they are being forced to live in such abhorrant (sic) conditions day and night by the Department of Public Safety and the Warden of Halawa,” DiMaria wrote to Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Sept. 15, 2011. “Please be the bold and compassionate governor that many of us believe you are, and do a safety inspection of (the Halawa prison).”

DiMaria described the prison’s maximum-security Module B, where her son is being held, as a filthy and moldy “hellhole,” and wrote that prisoners suffer severe breathing problems and are “sweating profusely.” She also said some prisoners had open sores on their bodies.

Six days later, prison officials gave a daylong tour of the Halawa to state Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees public safety and government affairs, vice chair Michelle Kidani, Rep. Karen Awana, Rep. Henry Aquino, the House public safety committee chair, and Debbie Shimizu, Abercrombie’s legislative liaison.

Once inside Module B, the lawmakers spoke with two prisoners, Edward Dean and Christopher Grindling, who lodged similar complaints as DiMaria’s. Dean and Grindling described their living area as hot as a sauna, though the air conditioning had been fixed just a day before.

“It’s been inadequate for two and a half months,” Dean said.

They said there was no ventilation in the showers, that black mold was growing inside their cells, and that the room had a disgusting odor. They also complained of excessive phone charges, bad food, and inadequate access to vocational programs and educational opportunities.

“Breakfast is donuts and lunch is baloney sandwiches,” Grindling told the visitors. Dean groused that “phone calls cost $20.”

“We can’t call collect,” he added. “We do not get phone cards.”

The pair also raised issues about the prison’s grievance process, which had recently changed. Prisoners now speak with prison officials who have direct oversight of a problem area, instead of filing a written complaint. Grievances have fallen 75 percent in the last year, according to the prison’s data, and they’re handled more quickly. But, according to Grindling, “There’s no due process.”

Halawa warden Nolan Espinda deflected most of the prisoners’ complaints, telling the lawmakers that the prison, which opened in 1962, is “antiquated and old.”

“AC is a constant problem,” Espinda said, adding that the prisoners fixed the system themselves, under guard supervision. “Module B especially has problems. The filters were recently changed. The air handler gave us a particular problem.”

Espinda said cracks in cell walls were caused by a nearby cement company that sets off a dynamite blast once or twice daily. He also told the visitors that breakfast was more than what Dean and Grindling described, served with cereal, an apple and milk. And lunch, which included a tuna sandwich the day of the visit, comes with soup, Espinda said.

Any other issues, he argued, should be blamed on budget cuts, not the prison’s administration or staff.

“[Espinda] didn’t answer all my questions, like why the lights in the gym didn’t work,” Kidani said. “But I guess they have their priorities.”

DiMaira, the mother who wrote to the governor, has complained about prison conditions before, testifying in 2009 before the Hawaii Legislature that the state should investigate its contract with the private company that runs the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, which houses some of Hawaii’s prisoners. She said the warden at Saguaro, where her son was then incarcerated, was a “sadistic bully,” and that her son had been mistreated.


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