Lei Down the Law

Hawaiian inmates in Arizona take the Corrections Corporation of America to court.

The Corrections Corporation of America will have to answer in federal court for the death of one inmate and the beating of another at the Florence Correctional Center--the company's private prison about an hour north of Tucson.

Two years ago, inmate Iulai Amani died of a suspicious heart attack after a balloon full of crystal methamphetamine exploded in his stomach. His family filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court this month, claiming that state prison officials and "unnamed individuals" are responsible.

The suit claims that Hawaii's largest prison gang, the United Samoan Organization, forced Amani to smuggle drugs, and that the state of Hawaii and the prison knew about it well before he died. Amani was convicted of manslaughter in 1998.

In Hawaii, where the state budget is tight and land too expensive, the state can't afford to build new prisons. Therefore, Hawaii contracts with CCA to house inmates--particularly sex offenders and murderers--in Florence, where land is cheaper and the Arizona legislature cut the corporation a large tax exemption. About 600 inmates are currently in Arizona, according to Hawaiian Department of Public Safety Director James Propotnick.

A lawsuit filed earlier this month by another inmate echoes the allegations in the Amani case.

In his complaint, inmate Victoriano Ortiz isn't shy about fingering the CCA. Ortiz claims that CCA guards knowingly allowed gang members to beat him senseless in a prison yard fight involving 23 inmates. Ortiz also says the warden and guards handed control over the prison to the two leaders of the gang, which was more than 100 members strong at the time.

Ortiz, who was convicted of second-degree murder 15 years ago, alleges that Pablo Sedillo, then warden of the Florence prison, "told the USOs that they could do whatever they wanted as long as they don't hurt the guards."

CCA officials did not return calls for comment.

In the months following the death, the CCA broke up the gang and drastically overhauled the facility, installing a new warden, Frank Luna. Hawaiian officials now visit the prison every six months to confirm that everything is running smoothly, Propotnick said.

"The problems were corrected," Propotnick said. "However, lawsuits tend to overestimate the facts. Whether they were that exacerbated, I don't know. I wasn't in office at the time."

Since the prison began operation in 1998, it's been riddled with problems. On the night of the 1999 state primary election, prisoners took hostages. The CCA was unable to contain the situation quickly, and local authorities were forced to shut down the town until the inmates released their prisoners.

The incident was largely kept secret from Arizona prison officials, former Arizona Department of Corrections director Terry Stewart said in a 2002 interview with the Tucson Weekly.

James Kawashima, the lawyer in the Amani case, said the suit is being brought to expose the conditions at the prison.

"Money's not the motive here," Kawashima said. "The motive is the discovery. We want to bring to light what was going on in the prison.

"I wouldn't say it's a fishing trip," Kawashima said. "We know more or less what's out there. We want to get black gates lifted."

The black gates he's talking about are the extensive censoring that appeared in the public version of official documents that passed between the Florence Correctional Center and the Hawaii Department of Public Safety. Full pages are zebra-striped with blacked-out information that could be vital in the case. Despite this, Propotnick claims the state of Hawaii isn't hiding anything.

"I don't know what we'd have to hide," Propotnick said. "It's not as if we keep a separate set of books. Even if people think we are, nobody here is covering anyone's rear end. If responsibility needs to be settled on, individual or individuals will be held accountable."

However, the information that was released was enough to warrant further investigation. The chief report filed by a Hawaiian investigative team shortly after Amani's death supports the Amani's claims that the USO controlled "drug use, work detail, sex with female inmates and prison-yard beatings."

In the 2001 report, Hawaiian gang intelligence officer Sgt. Patrick Kawai reported that guards at the prison smuggled drugs to inmates and looked the other way when the gang set up a prostitution ring involving female INS detainees also housed there.

He also says that the Corrections Corporation of America was covering up for something, but he wasn't sure what.

"During our meetings I felt as though our counterparts at the facility were being careful of what they were disclosing and generally had the feeling that they were withholding information from us," Kawai said in his 2001 report. "The inmates had more information than we did."

Kawashima is confident that the Amani case will uncover evidence that the state and the Corrections Corporation of America did know what was going on and allowed it to continue, and that the drug trade extended beyond crystal meth to marijuana and heroin.

Prison guards may have been involved in the smuggling. At least one guard admitted in an interview with Kawai that he traded drugs for protection with the prison gang.

Kawashima expects the discovery process to be drawn out over several months, and that once the responsible parties are identified, the trial should last a few weeks.

The construction of private prisons is a hot issue in many states across the country. As the number of inmates increases and budgets shrink, private prisons tempt state legislatures with promises of lower rates than state-operated facilities.

For example, Arizona's prisons are stretched to their limit as the inmate population has grown to more than 30,000. According to legislative research, the population will increase by 135 inmates per month until June. However, the state only has 26,310 beds.

To deal with the matter, Arizona lawmakers this year were considering cutting a deal with the Mexican state of Sonora to build a prison to house inmates who are Mexican nationals. The proposal was defeated in the Senate in March.

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