Inmates who were sexually abused by corrections officers at the women’s prison in Kailua in 2015 and 2016 should be awarded more than $8 million in damages, according to a lawyer who is representing them in a federal court trial in Honolulu.

The current and former prisoners at the Women’s Community Correctional Center were assaulted by guards in the control stations at the prison, and attorney Terrance Revere told a federal court jury on Monday that then-Warden Eric Tanaka should have installed video cameras in the control stations to prevent the assaults.

There were 53 rapes at the prison “that we know of,” according to lawyer Richard Wilson, who is also representing the women. According to a federal court filing, about two dozen of those sex assaults occurred in the control stations in 2015 and 2016.

“What happened to these women is horrible, and they’re going to have to live with it for the rest of their lives,” Revere told the jury.

Women's Community Correctional Center.
Current and former inmates at the Women’s Community Correctional Center who were sexually assaulted in 2015 and 2016 are seeking millions of dollars in damages. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

According to previous court rulings in the lawsuit, staff in some cases offered “the promise of privileges” to the inmates, but any sexual contact between an inmate and staff is a felony under Hawaii law because prisoners cannot legally give consent.

Revere said the state knew since at least 2012 that officers could assault inmates in the WCCC control booths without being observed. That was when another prisoner was sexually abused in a prison control booth at the same facility.

That woman, Stormy Rae Smith, ended up suing the state in that case, and her lawsuit was resolved in 2017 after the state and the guard involved each agreed to pay $50,000 to Smith.

Even then the state did not install cameras in the control booths, which Revere suggested could have been done at a cost on the order of $2,500. The lawyers representing the women in the case have filed a request with federal District Court Judge Jill Otake asking Otake to require that cameras be installed in the WCCC control centers.

Deputy Attorney General Skyler Cruz told the jury that Tanaka removed each of the officers who were accused of sexual assaults as soon as Tanaka learned of the allegations, and he launched investigations into each of the cases. He also requested that the Department of Public Safety’s internal affairs section take control of the investigations.

The officers involved in the assaults did not have a history of misconduct, and “these officers went out of their way to keep a secret, they didn’t want to get caught,” Cruz said. Tanaka could not be in the prison every hour of every day, and could not respond to problems if he did not know about them, Cruz told the jury.

Cruz also said there had been no sex assault cases similar to the Stormy Smith case in the two years before Tanaka became warden in 2014, suggesting that such sexual misconduct was not seen as a particularly pressing, top-tier issue at that time.

Tanaka was more focused on filling vacancies and hiring more women corrections officers, although he did not directly hire or train that staff, Cruz said.

Tanaka diligently implemented the requirements of the state’s Prison Rape Elimination Act policies that took effect in 2014, including its staffing plan, Cruz said, and the facility passed its PREA audits. He described Tanaka as “a warden who cares about the women in custody.”

Cruz also told the jury Tanaka wanted upgrades in the video monitoring systems at the prison, but “that’s not something he had the power to do himself.”

Court transcripts show Tanaka never intended to install cameras in the control centers, but Cruz told the jury Tanaka wanted to put more cameras elsewhere, including outside the control booths. That would allow the cameras to monitor who was coming and going from the control centers, and Cruz noted inmates are not permitted in the control centers.

Women's Community Correctional Center located in Kailua, Oahu.
A lawyer for former WCCC Warden Eric Tanaka described Tanaka as “a warden who cares about the women in custody,” and said he launched investigations as soon as he learned of the allegations against staff. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

No prison warden can prevent all sex assaults from happening, but “nothing that Eric Tanaka did or didn’t do caused plaintiff’s injuries,” Cruz told the jury.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Leinette Reyes, Dana Baba, Tiana Soto, Monica Alves Peralto and Shawna Tallman. The lawsuit alleges the fear and anxiety caused by the sexual assaults also prompted inmate Dawnielle Panlasigui to kill herself, and her estate is pursuing the case on behalf of her family.

Revere asked the jury to award the women $1 million each in damages plus another $100,000 each in punitive damages. He also asked the jury to award $3 million to the estate of Panlasigui.

The lawsuit was originally filed against the state of Hawaii, the late Director of Public Safety Nolan Espinda, Tanaka and former WCCC staffers Chavon Freitas, Taofi Magalei Jr., Brent Baumann, Gauta Va’a and James Sinatra.

Baumann pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree sexual assault in state court in 2020, and Va’a pleaded no contest to four counts of second-degree assault that same year. Both were sentenced to five years of probation.

The civil lawsuit in connection with the alleged sexual assaults at WCCC was first filed in 2017, but ended in a mistrial in 2020. Arguments in the new trial ended Monday, and the jury began deliberations in the case.

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