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HRDC suit re death of Hawaii prisoner raises concerns about CCA facility

Civil Beat, Feb. 15, 2012.
HRDC suit re death of Hawaii prisoner raises concerns about CCA facility - Civil Beat 2012

Death of Hawaii Prisoner Raises Concerns About Arizona Facility

Civil Beat

By Chad Blair 02/15/2012

What could the mother of a 26-year-old son possibly have to say about the beating and multiple-stabbing death of her son in his own Arizona prison cell — a killing in which his assailants carved the name of their gang into his chest?

The best that Davina Waialae could muster, between many tears, was that Bronson Nunuha's short life could serve as an example so that others will not meet a similar fate.

"I am here so other inmates, other members of my family, will not have to go what we are going through," Waialae told reporters Wednesday outside 1st Circuit Court. "My family is still devastated with what is happening. ... My grandson has to grow up without a dad."

Standing at Waialae's side were attorneys for the ACLU of Hawaii and a San Francisco law firm that, along with the Vermont-based nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center, have filed a civil suit over Nunuha's death.

Nunuha was killed in 2010 by other prisoners at a Corrections Corporation of America private prison. Trial for those charged is still pending. CCA and the state of Hawaii, which contracts with CCA to house nearly 1,800 local prisoners in Arizona facilities, are named in the lawsuit.

"No 5-year-old should have to bury their father," said attorney Kenneth M. Walczak. "Bronson's death could have been prevented."

Walczak says the lawsuit explains how both CCA and the state could have prevented the death — CCA by following proper public safety procedures, the state by bringing Nunuha back to Hawaii to serve the last year of his sentence, as state law requires.

Instead, Nunuha was still serving the last nine months of a five-year sentence for burglary and property damage when he was killed. He was housed "next to rapists, killers and violent memebrs of a prison gang."

The complaint seeks a "measure of justice," said Walczak — or, as the lawsuit puts it, "compensatory, general, and special damages against each Defendant, jointly and severally, in the amount proven at trial."

Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, which oversees state prisons, released a statement: "We cannot comment on the lawsuit until we have had time to look it over with the Deputy Attorney General assigned to it. We are saddened by the tragic situation that happened at Saguaro and we are working on ways to improve the prison system."
Justice Reinvestment Could Help

The Nunuha lawsuit is the latest in a string of incidents involving Hawaii prisoners at CCA prisons.

A few months after Nunuha was killed at CCA's Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., another Hawaii inmate, Clifford Medina, was slain. According to the ACLU, in 2009, Hawaii moved female prisoners out of a CCA facility in Kentucky where at least six CCA employees were charged with rape or sexual misconduct.

Nor is the Nunuha case the first time CCA has been sued on behalf of a Hawaii prisoner. Other Hawaii prisoners have alleged that the company stood by while inmates were beaten and attacked. The prior lawsuit also alleged that Native Hawaiian were stopped from their religious practices.

The Nunuha plaintiffs argue that CCA has sacrificed safety for profits. Those sacrifices include short-staffing.

According to the ACLU, Nunuha's cell door had been opened by a CCA employee, who then left. His killers "had time to leave his cell, shower and change clothes before CCA staff knew that Bronson had been killed," an ACLU press release said.

Hawaii contracted with CCA because it no longer had space to house its prisoners in state-run prisons.

"Why the State of Hawaii continues to contract with this company is mystifying, frankly," said HRDC director Paul Wright in a statement. "After two murders, disturbances, allegations of rampant sexual abuse and a lack of accountability by CCA employees, it's fairly obvious that CCA is unable or unwilling to safely house Hawaii prisoners, and the State is unable or unwilling to adequately monitor conditions at mainland prisons. Hawaii taxpayers are certainly not getting what they’re paying for."

Hawaii is trying to bring its mainland prisoners home.

Dan Gluck, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, urged Hawaii lawmakers to act on a host of measures designed to reform the state's criminal justice system.

Ironically, the "Justice Reinvestment" plan's biggest hurdle at the Capitol may be that some officials, namely prosecutors, worry that public safety could be threatened if inmates are more quickly moved out of prisons and into society.

Justice Reinvestment would come too late for Bronson Nunuha, of course.

His mother said her son, born on Maui and raised on homestead land in Waianae, planned to move to Alaska after serving time.

"And to try to make things right with his child," she added.

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