Operations and management at two Hawaii prisons are under scrutiny following a series of incidents over the past several years that have ranged from prisoner deaths and escapes to sexual harassment by staff members and the beating of a prisoner that resulted in criminal charges.
Five deaths during a two-month period at the Halawa Correctional Facility (HCF) and Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC) indicated failures in institutional policies and practices.
“In the past 15 years ... we have never heard of this in Hawaii prisons,” said Kat Brady, who coordinates the Community Alliance on Prisons. “So it is deeply, deeply concerning.”
The first in the series of deaths that occurred between March and May 2013 was a murder. OCCC prisoner Cyril Chung, 76, died of blunt force trauma to the head on March 9. His cellmate, Joseph Tui, had a history of paranoid delusions and schizophrenia; officials said Tui should never have been housed with Chung. In March 2016, Tui was found guilty of reckless manslaughter. He faces up to 20 years in prison for the death of his cellmate and another five years for second-degree assault of a hospital worker.
On April 8, 2013, Darius Puni-Mau hanged himself in his cell at HCF. Two weeks later, on April 21, Ikaika Andrade was found hanging in his OCCC cell. Both deaths were ruled suicides. Just 10 days after Andrade died, Mark Davis, Jr., 25, was found unresponsive in his cell at OCCC by medical staff. His death on May 9, 2013, while apparently due to natural causes, raised an alarm.
“This is the second death in the Housing Unit in one week,” said Ted Sakai, then-director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety (DPS). “I am emphasizing to our staff that we have a crisis on our hands.”
Davis was at OCCC awaiting trial for a felony assault charge on a nurse at a state hospital, where he had been held since 2005 after being found not guilty by reason of insanity of the rape and murder of a 6-year-old girl.
The spate of deaths in a two-month period was “alarming and of great concern,” said state Senator Will Espero, who noted the Attorney General’s office would investigate. “The AG’s involvement might uncover something not previously seen or found,” he said. “Their independent eyes can be helpful considering the situation involved here.”
It was hoped the series of deaths would end, but on May 19, 2013, Catherine Callahan, 56, was found dead in her cell. Her suicide revealed an institutional failure.
Callahan had been on suicide watch from May 2 to May 7. “This inmate was in the female module of what we call general population,” said Max Otani, Deputy Director of Corrections. “She was not in any special holding or in any type of suicide watch type of situation.”
The earlier suicide watch should have served as a warning, according to Kat Brady. “When someone was on suicide watch, one would think the state would be heightened to look at her and monitor her and to look at her more frequently,” she said.
Sakai agreed that such measures should have been taken. “The observations and visits need to be conducted by ACOs (Adult Corrections Officers), their supervisors, facility management, healthcare staff, and mental health staff,” he stated.
“Although you can’t control what an inmate may do in the privacy of their cell 100%, obviously we are failing somewhere,” said Senator Espero. “These incidents are proving that we need to do a better job.”
Other incidents revealed other types of failures by prison staff. In September 2013, OCCC guards Kevin Ignacio and Ismael Castro were charged with third-degree assault on prisoner Jeffery Diaz. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.56].
Diaz was beaten to a “bloody mess” in October 2012 after he refused to take a shower, reported Hawaii News Now. Court filings claimed Ignacio had encouraged other prisoners to harass and attack Diaz. Ignacio was charged with repeatedly punching Diaz while he was handcuffed; following those blows to the head and face, Castro kicked Diaz.
“Both cases involve assaults on inmate Jeffery Diaz that occur within minutes of each other,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Albert Cook. “In fact, [officer] Castro assaults inmate Diaz while he is handcuffed and escorted back to his cell ... immediately after Ignacio assaulted Diaz.”
In November 2015, Diaz and several other prisoners filed a pro se lawsuit in federal court alleging pervasive violence and excessive use of force by prison guards. That case remains pending. See: Pitts v. Espinda, U.S.D.C. (D. Haw.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00483-JMS-KJM.
Meanwhile, on August 9, 2013, a female prison guard filed a lawsuit that accused fellow guard Tahu Kakai of sexual harassment and other misconduct, including sexual assault. The suit also accused DPS officials of “negligent hiring” and failing to take action to end a hostile work environment.
The female guard, who was named as Jane Doe, began working at OCCC in August 2012. Two months later, Kakai sent her a “friend” request on Facebook and asked her to call or text him. When she accepted the friend request, Kakai sent her a series of naked photos and sexually explicit texts.
“We understand another female sent similar complaints,” said the woman’s attorney, Joseph Rosenbaum, referring to complaints sent to DPS about Kakai’s inappropriate conduct.
Another personnel probe is currently investigating two OCCC supervisors who allowed an unauthorized civilian behind bars and then tried to orchestrate a cover-up. In January 2016, several prisoners barricaded themselves inside their cell in an attempt to stall their transfer to a segregation unit. The guards asked the father of one of the prisoners for help, granting him access to the housing unit to successfully negotiate his son’s surrender. The incident was never documented and the supervisors allegedly instructed their subordinates not to report it.
Then there are the escapes. In February 2013, OCCC pre-trial detainee Teddy Munet absconded during a transport to court. Four vans were unloading detainees when Munet, who was awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges, slipped away. He was not wearing the customary shackles and was in street clothes, which is normal for those who go to court.
“Many lessons were learned on this one,” Sakai acknowledged at a Hawaii Senate informational briefing.
A massive manhunt ensued in downtown Honolulu and Munet was captured later that same day. Sakai said DPS officials would ensure that all prisoners are properly restrained, and would stagger transport vans and install radios in the vans to ensure they can contact local law enforcement.
At the hearing, state Senator Rosalyn Baker said she had toured OCCC’s holding cells, where prisoner Cyril Chung was murdered by his cellmate just weeks after Munet’s escape. She described the cells as “pretty deplorable.”
In June 2014, two prisoners escaped from OCCC less than a week apart. Allan Abihai, a convicted rapist, simply walked away from a work furlough program. A few days later, Daniel Skelton was able to climb through the bathroom ceiling up to the roof, jump off the one-story building and leave through the front entrance. Skelton’s escape remained unnoticed until the next morning before sparking a three-day search.
The escapes exposed major weaknesses in OCCC’s security measures and procedures. The Department of Public Safety made several upgrades to the facility, but admitted no steps had been taken to address overcrowding issues. In December 2015, OCCC housed 1,155 prisoners in a facility intended for 628.
There had been suggestions of closing OCCC and either expanding HCF or building a new prison in West Oahu, but the discussions never resulted in action. Due to overcrowding, for many years state officials have sent hundreds of Hawaii prisoners to privately-operated facilities on the U.S. mainland, far from their families, which has resulted in other problems. [See, e.g., PLN, Nov. 2012, p.30; March 2012, p.28; Aug. 2011, p.38; Dec. 2001, p.14].
The security breaches and staff misconduct at OCCC and HCF finally spurred Governor David Y. Ige to put Hawaii’s prison system at the top of his agenda. In January 2016, the Ige administration announced plans to build a new facility in the Halawa Valley to replace OCCC. The Department of Public Safety will be requesting proposals on how to fund the half-billion-dollar project, and are already entertaining the idea of a lease-back arrangement with a private prison company.
The new facility would be able to house up to 1,000 prisoners and would take five to seven years to complete. The proposed construction site is, however, within close proximity of the U.S. Navy’s Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility, which is known for fuel leaks and contaminated groundwater. Conveniently, the prison-building proposal exempts state officials from having to conduct a new environmental impact assessment. During a Senate Public Safety hearing, former HCF prisoner DeMont Conner voiced concerns about the potential adverse health effects the location may have on prisoners housed at the new facility.
Given the past indifference shown to prisoners at OCCC and HCF, though, it’s unlikely that Hawaii officials will begin showing concern now. During a hearing on February 4, 2016, Kat Brady with the Community Alliance on Prisons expressed opposition to exempting the proposed prison from an environmental review.
“Every person in OCCC is a member of our community, thus making visiting from family and friends even more difficult is a huge impact,” she testified. “Has this site ever been surveyed both for cultural sites and potential environmental problems? Has soil sampling been done? Has contamination from nearby Red Hill (i.e. leaking underground fuel tanks) been detected at the site? Has the impact of building been analyzed on the Halawa Correctional Facility and the health and safety of the men inside and the men and women who work there?”
While all were good questions, state officials did not have good answers.
Sources: www.civilbeat.com, www.staradvertiser.com, www.hawaiinewsnow.com, www.khon2.com, www.hawaiifreepress.com
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Related legal case
Pitts v. Espinda
|U.S.D.C. (D. Haw.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00483-JMS-KJM.