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The Hawaii Department of Public Safety had a situation on its hands.
It was Aug. 7, and the department had learned that a 21-year-old prisoner from Maui turned up dead in his cell at the Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison where about 1,400 Hawaii prisoners are housed.
In a brief statement, the department passed on some scant details: The prisoner, Jonathan Namauleg, was found “unconscious and face-down” on the floor by his cellmate. Rushed to a nearby hospital, he was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival.
It seemed a sure bet that more news would be forthcoming — after all, Arizona authorities had launched an investigation, and the department was about to dispatch its own team of investigators to the scene.
Indeed, a week later, local medical examiners declared Namauleg’s death a homicide, concluding that he had been strangled. And, in February, prosecutors indicted Jason McCormick, Namauleg’s cellmate, on a first-degree murder charge.
But the department has yet to even acknowledge any of the developments. In fact, for more than nine months, it hasn’t released a single follow-up statement — or the results of its investigation into Namauleg’s death.
In many ways, the episode is a perfect illustration of the department’s attitude toward transparency: When it comes to troubling news out of Saguaro, it prefers to stay tight-lipped.
Five years before Naumaleg’s death, the murders of two other Hawaii prisoners at Saguaro sparked concerted efforts to improve oversight and bring transparency to the state’s mainland prison operation.
But no one in a position to bring accountability, then or now, has meaningfully done so — not the governor, not legislators, not the Department of Public Safety.
Critics say the continuing lack of transparency makes it virtually impossible to assess how well the department monitors the performance of the state’s contractor, Corrections Corporation of America, despite a long history of problems.
“They’re loving this arrangement, because they know they don’t really have anybody looking over their shoulders.” — Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons
“They can control what information comes out of there; as long as they can do that, there’s never going to be true oversight,” said Carrie Ann Shirota, a Maui lawyer who once examined the for-profit prison industry as a fellow at the Open Society Foundations. “When you’re out of sight, out of mind.”
Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says the arrangement ultimately lets CCA off the hook.
“They’re loving this arrangement, because they know they don’t really have anybody looking over their shoulders,” Brady said.
Howard Komori, acting administrator of the Mainland and Federal Detention Center Branch, which oversees the state’s contracts with CCA, declined to comment for this story.
For his part, state Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, says he sees little choice but to keep faith with the department’s monitoring efforts — unless, he says, “someone tells me there’s a massive cover-up and corruption in the mainland branch.”
“The reality is that there’s a plethora of things for us to be looking into. So, unless we hear otherwise, we have to trust as lawmakers that the people we pay to do the job are doing their jobs,” Espero said. “If they’re not, give us the evidence and let us look into it. That’s the best we can do.”
The Department of Public Safety first established the mainland branch as a “special program” in 2004, at a time when Hawaii had become increasingly dependent on for-profit prisons on the mainland to serve as a release valve for the state’s dangerously overcrowded prisons.
The nine-person unit has since become a regular fixture within the department, with an annual payroll of more than $400,000.
All along, the mainland branch has operated under little public scrutiny — shielded by the department’s insistence that most of its work must be kept confidential because of privacy and security concerns.
But, in April 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii challenged the department’s lack of transparency in a lawsuit filed in the state court.
The case stemmed from wrongful-death lawsuits brought a year earlier by a San Francisco law firm representing the families of two Hawaii prisoners murdered at Saguaro in 2010.
The firm, Rosen Bien Galvan and Grunfeld, had filed public-records requests for 31 different categories of documents — later narrowed down to 28 — to establish a pattern of negligence and mismanagement by CCA, such as the practice of “grossly short-staffing prisons and cutting corners in every way possible to make its private prisons profitable.”
But the firm was given the runaround by the department for nearly seven months — even after it paid more than $5,300 in fees and expenses for the documents.
The ACLU of Hawaii stepped in and sued the department, arguing that its actions violated the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act.
“The defendant has responded with empty promises to produce some government records at some undetermined point in the future, along with vague, unsubstantiated objections to producing broad categories of government records,” Daniel Gluck, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii, wrote in the lawsuit.
“These are public agencies, and the public has the right to know what’s going on in them.” — Michele Deitch, senior lecturer at the University of Texas
After five months of litigation, a judge gave the plaintiffs a partial win, ordering the department to start producing seven out of the 28 categories of documents.
But the judge also allowed the department — at least for the time being — to continue withholding many of the key documents, such as the findings of the investigations into the two prisoners’ deaths, as well as records on gang-related violence at Saguaro.
That isn’t to say that all of the released documents were trivial.
Among the released documents were monthly reports submitted by wardens at Saguaro and seven other CCA-run prisons that previously housed Hawaii prisoners — a valuable tool for getting a statistical overview of each prison on a wide range of topics, from inmate population and programs to grievance and medical care.
The reports for Saguaro also tally the number of “incidents” in more than 100 subcategories — such as “escape (under CCA supervision),” “use of deadly force” and “fight with weapon requiring admission to hospital, inmate on inmate.”
But the reports are devoid of any detailed descriptions of individual incidents — effectively preventing any independent effort to examine them in-depth.
In 2010, then-Hawaii State Auditor Marion Higa also had to fight an uncooperative bureaucracy to get necessary information for her report on the state’s mainland prison operation.
In her report, Higa detailed “numerous roadblocks” that her team had encountered: “Department officials repeatedly attempted to deny us direct access to individuals and documents, define our audit scope, and stop us from conducting an audit at all, among other issues.”
That came as a surprise even to Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, who had to respond to Higa’s findings as the newly appointed director of the Department of Public Safety. “I’m a little perplexed by the lack of cooperation your team received,” she wrote.
Higa also found a number of other problems with the department’s monitoring efforts, noting in particular the absence of any formal policies dictating how to properly evaluate CCA’s performance.
The lack of such policies, Higa noted, led the mainland branch to accept CCA’s statements at face value.
“We observed the contract monitoring team take the testimony of (CCA’s) staff without verifying their statements against documentary evidence,” Higa wrote. “The audit team would benefit from having specific guidance as to what to test or how to validate, such as an independent sample of items to substantiate testimony, to show greater evidence of compliance.”
It appears that, six years after Higa’s report, the department hasn’t fixed the problem.
According to Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, the department bases all of its monitoring efforts on a policy called, “Management Control and Assessment System.”
But the policy, which was created two years before Higa’s report, only spells out what the department is responsible for monitoring — not how it should go about doing that monitoring, as Higa advised.
“This is the policy and procedure all of our corrections branches and divisions follow when it comes to performance evaluations, reporting, monitoring and planning,” Schwartz said.
In August 2014, the department ramped up its monitoring efforts by hiring a contractor, Jennifer Bechler, to be its on-site monitor at Saguaro. Before Bechler’s hiring, the position had been vacant since January 2010.
Bechler, a former contract monitor at the Arizona Department of Corrections, is responsible for conducting a daily review of Saguaro’s operations, as well as responding to grievances and incidents involving Hawaii prisoners.
Bechler declined to comment for this story.
But, in response to Civil Beat’s ongoing public-records requests, the department provided a sample copy of Bechler’s monthly report from January 2016. It contains aggregate statistical information — similar to the warden’s reports — on topics ranging from disciplinary charges to staffing level.
Civil Beat has requested, but not yet received, all of the reports Bechler has produced during her tenure.
Bechler’s report differs from the warden’s reports in one significant way: Under one category, “Reportable Incidents,” it provides narratives of problems encountered by Hawaii prisoners.
But Civil Beat couldn’t assess the report’s utility — because the department blacked out the narrative portion of the report entirely, saying that it must remain confidential to protect privacy and to avoid “the frustration of a legitimate government function.”
Michele Deitch, senior lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, says the hiring of an on-site monitor is a step in the right direction, but it’s no match for having independent monitors.
The goal, Deitch says, should be to bring both transparency and accountability.
“These are public agencies, and the public has the right to know what’s going on in them. So you’d want some entity that write reports that are publicly available,” said Deitch, a national expert on prison oversight. “Citizens can then find out what’s going on at these facilities, and families of inmates can find out what’s going on when they are hearing about medical care at the facility being really problematic — or use-of-force incidents being on the rise.”
In one sense, such system already exists within Hawaii’s prison system.
Every year, the Department of Public Safety brings in auditors from other states to get at least a third of the state’s prisons and jails audited for compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act — so that all facilities could be certified once every three years, as mandated under the law.
Hawaii, in turn, sends its certified auditors to other states to assist in their auditing process.
Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, says he’s open to applying a similar system to monitoring Saguaro.
“That might be a good idea. We contract with someone else — kind of an exchange process. Our guys go to theirs, and they come to Saguaro,” Espinda said. “That’s something worth exploring, absolutely.”
Brady says she’d love it if Espinda followed through on the idea.
“I would find that to be interesting. I hope he’s serious,” Brady said. “But what would actually come to pass? I don’t know. All I can say is that I’m hopeful.”