It is easy enough to hate James Pflueger for what he has done.
Plueger was sentenced last month to seven months in prison for reckless endangerment in the deaths of seven people who were swept out to sea when a dam on his Kauai property burst. The state had accused Pflueger of causing the breach by closing off the dam’s key protection feature, its spillway.
The victims, who died in 2006, were all young — a husband and wife and their 2-year-old toddler and a pregnant woman and the fiancée she was about to marry as well as one of the engaged couple’s friends and an associate of the married couple.
Many considered seven months in prison too little for such a crime.
But the crowning blow for most people in their disgust with Pflueger came Friday when state Public Safety director Ted Sakai released the retired car dealer from Kauai Community Correctional Center and placed him on home detention in his Hawaii Kai residence.
Sakai said the Kauai jail’s medical director as well as the prison Health Care Branch physician and the Health Care administrator did not believe Pflueger could be appropriately cared for in the Kauai jail or in any other Hawaii prison.
Critics, however, insisted Pflueger got off easy by his release to home detention because he is rich.
I believe the prisons did the right thing, not because I care so much about Pflueger, which I don’t, but lawyers I have spoken with say if Pflueger dies in prison the state will be hit with a huge lawsuit for medical malpractice or for a civil rights violation under the Eighth Amendment prohibiting the “cruel and unusual punishment” of prisoners.
Attorney Richard Turbin says the state was correct to send Pflueger home, and if he were the state attorney general he would have done the same thing.
“It is not special treatment because Pflueger is wealthy but the right thing because the taxpayers stand to get hit for a large judgment if he dies in prison or if his health even more seriously declines, especially because the state has been warned and had admitted it does not have the ability to care for him,” says Turbin.
“It has nothing to do with him being wealthy, many inmates are also given compassionate releases because they are deathly ill,” he says.
Prison director Sakai says compassionate releases are denied only when an inmate still poses a threat to society or does not have a home to which to return.
Turbin knows how much the state must do for proper health care of inmates. He won a judgment of more than $1 million on behalf of an inmate who received improper and neglectful medical treatment from two prison doctors after the inmate complained of a painful infection in his scrotum.
After six surgeries, the inmate’s scrotal sac had to be amputated, which medical experts say would have been unnecessary if the infection had been taken care of properly when it was brought to the doctors’ attention.
The state appealed, but the judgment for Turbin’s client was upheld by the Intermediate Court of Appeals last year and the Hawaii Supreme Court this year. That helped set case law that prisoners in Hawaii are entitled to the same standard of professional medical care as the rest of the population.
Turbin says, “Even a person like Pflueger whose actions are despicable is entitled to the same level of medical care as all other people in Hawaii and when the prisons cannot provide that they have to make sure that he gets the right care.”
After he began serving time in the Kauai prison, Pflueger was taken to the emergency room at Kauai’s Wilcox Hospital twice.
Prison officials will not talk about the specifics of Pflueger’s medical condition for medical privacy reasons but an earlier news report said he has a leaking heart valve and other heart problems.
And state Sen. Will Espero revealed that while in prison Pflueger developed a new and serious stomach hernia that has not responded well to treatment.
The new condition combined with Pflueger’s previous heart trouble is what caused the prison doctors to worry.
“We knew of his history and were doing the best we could,” Sakai says. “However, since our own doctor told us that he was concerned about an additional condition that had developed during incarceration, that he did not think any of our facilities could provide him appropriate care and that he recommended treatment by specialists who were familiar with his condition, we were put on notice.”
Sakai says if he didn’t take the recommended course of action and something happened to Pflueger “then we would have to answer for it.”
Kauai Circuit Judge Randal G.B. Valenciano might have made a mistake when he sent the frail 89-year-old Pflueger to the Kauai prison directly from the courthouse Oct. 15. The decision to immediately imprison the elderly man even before the prison had his medical records astounded prison officials.
Sakai says, “We had no notice that he would be sentenced to us that day. We certainly were not prepared to house an 89-year-old man with a history of serious medical problems.”
For the prison system, a more appropriate course would have been to have time to decide where to appropriately place Pflueger.
A friend who called me right after Pflueger was sent home to be monitored through an ankle bracelet called it “a clean release,” meaning it was a correct decision, that it was justified.
The term “clean release” struck me as odd when so much of what Pflueger has done has been dirty. I have disliked him ever since he illegally graded another of his Kauai properties, which sent 1,000 tons of mud sliding down into the once pristine waters of Pilaa Beach.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s $7.5 million dollar settlement with Pflueger for the damage to coral reef at Pilaa is the largest fine the EPA has levied on an individual. In addition, Plueger had to pay $4 million to the state in fines.
For Bruce Feuring, the father of three of the victims in the Kaloko Dam breech, Pflueger’s release to home detention will never be right.
In a written statement, Feuring said:
“To me, the father of a victim, father-in-law of another, grandfather of a third and friend or acquaintance to all the rest, this latest development in the saga of Pflueger’s old-boy manipulation of the justice system stinks like corruption and smells like big money.”
Feuring also wrote about Pflueger: “He should be back where he belongs, sitting on hard chairs and laying on a hard bed in a jail cell with a male roommate, with steel bars and rules to follow and guards to obey.”
But on that hard prison bed, Pflueger probably would have died. And since the prison had already been put on notice of his frail health, his death might well be considered in a court of law as “cruel and unusual” punishment.