Here is how attorneys representing Clifford Medina, 23, describe how he was killed by cellmate Mahinauli Silva, 22, while incarcerated by the state of Hawaii in a private Arizona prison:
On the morning of June 8, 2010, sometime after breakfast, Silva and Medina engaged in a heated argument, which developed into a physical altercation. As the fight escalated, Silva put Medina in a “guillotine choke hold,” a choke in which the assailant’s arms are used to encircle the opponent’s neck in a fashion similar to a guillotine. Silva went to the ground and was on his back with Medina’s back resting on his chest, legs wrapped tightly around Medina so that he could not get out of the choke. After holding him in the choke hold for approximately 10 minutes, Silva released Medina.
That’s according to a court filing detailing a lawsuit by Medina’s family against the state of Hawaii, its Department of Public Safety and the Corrections Corporation of America, the private mainland prison company that Hawaii pays to house some 1,800 Hawaii inmates in Arizona.
Medina was killed at the same CCA prison in Sagauro where that same year another Hawaii inmate, Bronson Nunuha, died after being “punched, kicked, stomped on, and stabbed more than 140 times” by two prison gang members.
It’s the same group that filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of Nunuha’s family in February. That case is pending.
As Sanford Rosen put it at Tuesday press conference on the State Circuit Court lawn on Punchbowl Street, “CCA’s interests are driven by profit more than running its prisons in a way that fulfills its responsibilities to protect those it imprisons from unnecessary harm. The state of Hawaii abdicated its responsibilities too and failed to assure that appropriate measures of oversight are exercised for the protection of Hawaii residents and prisoners.”
The plaintiffs are seeking damages that at a minimum, said Rosen, would be in the seven figures.
But something else is sought too.
“For us as a family, we want justice for Clifford, and for the inmates to be home in Hawaii, and that it doesn’t happen again,” said Beverly Lokelani Medeiros, Medina’s aunt and hanai mother. Standing next to her was Medina’s sister, Roseanna Medeiros, who held a small black box holding her brother’s ashes.
Toni Schwartz, public information officer for the Department of Public Safety, issued this statement in response to the lawsuit:
The Attorney General’s office is looking over the filing and will take the appropriate course of action. We have been advised not to speak about pending litigation until the Deputy Attorney General assigned to the case has had some time to look it over.
The loss to the Medeiros family aside, at the core of the legal action is Hawaii’s decision to transfer inmates from overcrowded facilities in the state, and to put them under the care of a company with a troubling record.
As they did in the Nunuha suit, the attorneys listed CCA’s New York Stock Exchange symbol (CXW) in their press release to underscore what they see as the company’s pattern of sacrificing safety for profit.
Alex Friedmann of the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping abuse at U.S. detention facilities, said Medina’s murder “did not occur in a vacuum.”
State and CCA officials, he argued, “cannot say that they were unaware of serious deficiencies at Saguaro” given the Nunuha killing four months earlier.
There was also the matter of incidents at other CCA prisons. In addition to toleration of beatings and sexual assaults, they include a riot earlier this week in Mississippi involving hundreds of prisoners, the taking of hostages, the setting of fires and the death of a CCA officer.
“These incidents and Clifford’s death should motivate Hawaii to hasten its efforts to bring Hawaii’s prisoners back home where they belong closer to their families,” said Friedmann, stating that Medina “would likely still be alive today had he not been transferred from Halawa to Saguaro.”
Rosen, the San Francisco lawyer, said “CCA ignored the danger to Clifford, including the documented request by his cellmate and murderer that he not be housed in the same cell.”
“There’s evidence that one of the defendants in this suit who said, ‘As long as you two don’t kill each other, I don’t care,'” said Rosen.
Silva, who Rosen said is being prosecuted in Arizona for Medina’s murder, was serving up to 10 years for burglary, theft and robbery convictions. He was involved with prison gangs and, as the brief states, “was known to CCA and its officials as a person with anger problems, who was likely to be agressive and violent toward other prisoners.”
By contrast, Medina was in Saguaro serving a five-year sentence following a probation violation and had a history of participation in special education programs.
Diagnosed with moderate mental retardation as a child, Medina, the attorneys state, “was particularly vulnerable to manipulation and violence by other inmates” — and that Hawaii officials knew this.
Rosen said CCA’s classification system for incarcerating inmates “broke down,” as did its staffing and accountability system.
As example of the latter, Rosen said a prison guard inspected the cell holding Silva and Medina not long after the strangulation. Medina was concealed under a blanket, and had the guard performed a “standup identification,” he might have been able to save Medina’s life through resuscitation.
The bottom line message of the legal challenge: Hawaii should extricate itself from its CCA contract.
The state is trying to do just that, through its “justice reinvestment” initiative, a data-driven approach intended to improve efficiency and save money in Hawaii’s criminal justice system. That could lead to releasing nonviolent offenders and freeing up local prison space.
But, as ACLU attorney Dan Gluck observed, the justice reinvestment measures that did pass the Hawaii Legislature this year were not as strong as the ACLU and other prison-reform groups wanted.
“We think the state needs to move faster with more emphasis on bringing these inmates back home,” said Gluck, adding that the Medina murder demonstrates the need for Hawaii “to end this failed experiment with private prisons.”