The Hawaii Department of Public Safety has launched an investigation into the death of a Hawaii inmate at the Saguaro Correctional Center, a for-profit prison in Eloy, Arizona, that houses more than 1,300 prisoners from the islands.

According to the department, Jonathan Namauleg, 21, of Maui, was found unconscious and face-down on the floor of the cell Thursday afternoon after his cellmate, Jason McCormick, activated a distress button and advised correctional officers that Namauleg needed medical attention.

Jonathan Namauleg

Jonathan Namauleg

Hawaii Department of Public Safety

Paramedics performed CPR and transported Namauleg to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at about 5 p.m. An autopsy is pending.

The Eloy Police Department has secured the cell as a crime scene, and a team of public safety investigators is being dispatched to Arizona to investigative.

Namauleg was serving a three-year sentence for third-degree arson at Saguaro, which houses nearly a quarter of Hawaii’s 5,669 inmates.

McCormick, 41, is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole for the second-degree murder of Robert Henderson, who was a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii.

Namauleg’s death is not the first at Saguaro since the prison — owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America — was opened just for Hawaii in 2007.

Jason McCormick

Jason McCormick

Hawaii Department of Public Safety

CCA has been sued a number of times for the deaths of Hawaii inmates, and an audit in 2010 pointed out serious management and procurement problems with the way the state handled its contract with the company.

Responding to criticisms, former Gov. Neil Abercrombie made bringing back Hawaii prisoners one of his top priorities. But he managed to reduce the number of out-of-state inmates by only about 300 during his four-year tenure.

Gov. David Ige told Civil Beat last week that sending prisoners to the mainland is not ideal — but he has little choice but to maintain the current arrangement, given the dilapidated state of the state’s prisons and jails.

“I do believe that it’s better for our community to return the prisoners,” Ige said. “But I’m pretty pragmatic at the same time. Quite frankly, we don’t have any place to put them. Until we can move forward with (building a new) facility, any discussion of bringing them home is premature.”

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, said Namauleg’s death poses new questions about wisdom of sending inmates to Arizona.

“This is the problem with banishing our people thousands of miles from their loved ones, their homes and, for the disproportionate number of incarcerated Native Hawaiians, far from their ancestral lands,” Brady said. “Our hearts go our to the Namauleg ohana.”

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