Politics & Government

‘Don’t go there’: Kansas using private prison where Hawaii inmates have been murdered

Three inmates have been killed at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona in the past 10 years — as many as in the entire Kansas prison system.

Some inmates at Saguaro have suffered an infection called “valley fever.” And some lawmakers in Hawaii — the private prison’s big customer — are thinking about how to get their people out.

Hundreds of Kansas inmates will arrive there soon.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration turned to private prison operator CoreCivic, which owns Saguaro, to hold inmates as Kansas struggles with prison overcrowding. The state will pay $74.76 a day for each inmate — 360 initially and up to 600 eventually.

Interviews with criminal justice experts and advocates familiar with Saguaro, as well as court documents, reveal deep concerns with the prison – especially among Hawaiians, whose inmates have been sent there since it opened in 2007.


How we did this story

On Aug. 9, Kansas announced it would send hundreds of inmates to Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona. But officials said little about the prison itself, which is operated by CoreCivic. Reporter Jonathan Shorman wanted to learn more about the facility. Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

Researching history, records

After Shorman found out the prison’s main customer is Hawaii, he began researching the history of the state’s use of Saguaro and its relationship with CoreCivic. He read past news stories from Arizona and Hawaii and examined previous audits of Saguaro and reports filed under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Shorman conducted phone interviews with criminal justice experts and advocates in Hawaii. He found several sources by reading legislative testimony on bills introduced in the Hawaii Legislature that would affect the state’s use of private prisons.

Shorman also searched Arizona and federal court records to identify lawsuits filed against CoreCivic related to Saguaro.

Toward the end of his reporting, Shorman reached out to both CoreCivic and the Kansas Department of Corrections with questions about Saguaro. Their answers are incorporated into the story.

They question security at Saguaro after multiple episodes of deadly violence. They also say the prison’s location makes maintaining ties to home and family difficult for Hawaiian inmates, concerns already voiced by the families of Kansas inmates.

“Don’t go there,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, president of the American Society of Criminology and a professor at the University of Hawaii.

“Find other ways to handle whatever your prison overpopulation is … because the unintended consequences are terrible,” she said.

Kansas corrections officials say private prisons aren’t ideal but that they have limited options as they deal with a state prison system that has too many inmates and not enough beds and staff.

CoreCivic was the only company to bid on the state’s request for private prison beds. As of June, Saguaro held 1,441 Hawaiian inmates. A 2017 federal report showed a capacity of 1,926.

Formerly Corrections Corporation of America, CoreCivic is the country’s oldest and largest for-profit private prison operation. Over the years it has faced scrutiny and criticism for the substandard conditions in some of its facilities.

Recently, CoreCivic has come under fire for housing people held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It also operates the Leavenworth Detention Center, a federal facility in Kansas where prosecutors are alleged to have listened to calls between inmates and attorneys. CoreCivic and its phone provider reached a $1.45 million settlement with detainees this week.

Asked about Saguaro, CoreCivic points to state audits that show the prison complies with its contract with Hawaii. It promises Saguaro will provide safe and secure housing for Kansas inmates.

Both Kansas and CoreCivic emphasize oversight measures in the contract, such as Kansas’s ability to access the prison at any time. Hawaii’s contract allows for access at “all reasonable times.”

“CoreCivic cares deeply about every person in our care, and we work hard to ensure those in our facilities are treated respectfully and humanely,” company spokesman Brandon Bissell said in a statement.

Saguaro inmates murdered

Within the last 10 years, three Hawaii inmates were murdered by other inmates at the prison.

By contrast, three Kansas inmates were killed by another person in the entire state prison system in the past 10 years, according to state records.

“Do I think it’s a secure facility? No,” said Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons in Hawaii, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform and alternatives to incarceration.

In February 2010, inmate Bronson Nunuha died at the hands of two other inmates. A federal lawsuit filed by his family said he had been stabbed some 140 times.

That June, Clifford Medina was strangled by Mahinauli Silva in a cell they shared. Medina had been in prison for a probation violation; Silva had been convicted of robbery and burglary.

In a lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged prison staff housed Medina with violent inmates though he had developmental disabilities.

The 2010 deaths led to calls to take Hawaiian inmates out of Saguaro and other private prisons. Then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie endorsed the effort, but Hawaii ultimately continued to send inmates to CoreCivic facilities.

In 2015, Jason McCormick, who had been convicted of murdering an instructor at the University of Hawaii, strangled Johnathan Naumaleg in their shared cell. Naumaleg’s mother sued CoreCivic in 2016, alleging Naumaleg had sought protective custody but the company had refused.

“Johnathan was murdered as a direct result of (CoreCivic’s) negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and deliberate indifference to Johnathan’s civil rights, including his right to life,” the suit said.

CoreCivic settled federal lawsuits in all three murders. The terms of the settlements were not disclosed.

CoreCivic said in a statement that all of its facilities are closely monitored by the governments that use them. All undergo regular audits to ensure care for inmates meets standards.

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety publishes an audit report of Saguaro twice a year. The latest, from June, found the prison in compliance with its contract.

A review of five years of audits found only a handful of issues related to programs for inmates, but none about security.

Valley Fever

CoreCivic has faced a federal lawsuit over “valley fever” — an infection caused when people breath in microscopic fungal spores that live in the soil in the southwest United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While many people never have symptoms, those that do can experience fatigue, coughing, fever, shortness of breath and headaches, among others.

Honolulu Civil Beat reported in 2016 that at least four Saguaro inmates had been infected between 2014 and 2016.

Lael Samonte, a 61-year-old diabetic inmate of Filipino descent, sued CoreCivic in federal court in 2017. According to the CDC, people who are black or Filipino, as well as people with diabetes, may have a higher risk of developing a severe form of the fever.

Samonte alleged that incarceration at Saguaro, where he could be exposed to valley fever, represented cruel and unusual punishment.

Last week, a federal judge granted CoreCivic’s motion for summary judgment, making CoreCivic the winner in the lawsuit. The motion said that Samonte couldn’t prove that his exposure to valley fever at Saguaro is “sufficiently serious to warrant constitutional protection in this instance.”

CoreCivic noted it operates six facilities in the same county as Saguaro, including three with large Hispanic populations, which also have an elevated risk of developing a severe form of valley fever. None, including Saguaro, had experienced an outbreak of valley fever in the past 18 years, CoreCivic said.

CoreCivic also said that Samonte was not concerned about his health because he had engaged in repeated hunger strikes.

“(Samonte) views this lawsuit as a way to get what he wants — money and a trip back to Hawaii,” attorneys for CoreCivic said in the motion.

Hawaii’s choice

Hawaii turned to private prisons in the 1990s amid prison crowding problems. The state has been dealing with the consequences ever since.

What was intended as a temporary measure has become a long-term solution that has separated thousands of inmates from their families.

Family visits that could take place every weekend if an inmate were in Hawaii might only happen once a year if they’re at a private prison elsewhere, Chesney-Lind said. Most people will eventually get out of prison and return to the community, she said, adding that family relationships help them stay connected.

“That’s just shattered by these huge distances,” Chesney-Lind said.

Some advocates say sending inmates to the mainland harms their ability to be rehabilitated. Kris Coffield, director of the IMUAlliance, a Hawaii-based anti-human trafficking organization, said it’s difficult to provide rehabilitative services to inmates out of state.

Inmates connect better with care when it’s offered by people who share their background, he said.

“Shipping people off to Saguaro completely devastates that kind of relationship,” Coffield said.

Bissell, the CoreCivic spokesman, said in a statement that the company “plays a critical role for criminal justice systems that are overcrowded or aging.”

“Over the course of more than three decades, we have successfully partnered with federal, state and local government entities to creatively and efficiently meet their challenges in ways they could not do alone,” Bissell said. “As a result, many systems are safer and better able to provide quality programming for the inmates in their care.”

But some in Hawaii disagree.

A 2018 task force report to the Hawaii Legislature called on the state to develop a plan to stop using private prisons, saying they “do not serve the best interest of Hawai’i.” The document cited a previous Hawaiian report that found transfers to out-of-state prisons dislocated inmates from family, job prospects and community support.

In recent years, Hawaiian legislators have introduced legislation that would move the state away from private prisons but it has not passed.

“I’m starting to see a little break in the Legislature, where there are some members who are starting to realize that what we are doing is actually causing harm further down the road because people come out and they don’t have any skills and they don’t know how to act in the community,” Brady said.

‘Best option’ right now

When Kansas announced in early August that it would contract for beds at Saguaro, officials emphasized that they wished they could avoid using a private prison. Acting Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda called it the “best option available at this time” for inmate safety.

Gov. Laura Kelly called on lawmakers “to pursue long-term solutions to prison overcrowding” and added that she looked forward to working with them on criminal justice reform.

Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Randy Bowman said CoreCivic proposed the state use Saguaro. He said the contract allows Kansas to move inmates if beds become available at a closer CoreCivic facility. The company operates prisons in both Colorado and Oklahoma.

Before contracting with CoreCivic, Kansas officials visited Saguaro and spoke with staff and inmates at the prison, Bowman said.

The state plans to move inmates to Saguaro throughout the fall.

It says inmates transferred to Saguaro will receive treatment and educational services that are up to Kansas standards. Kansas inmates may be combined with inmates from other states, including Hawaii, for education, meals and programs, but will be housed separately.

An on-site monitor paid by Kansas and reporting to the state Department of Corrections will have open access to Saguaro to ensure conditions are up to state standards.

“It is important to us to have this function to confirm we are getting the services and safe environment we expect,” Bowman said.

Bissell said the monitor hired by Kansas will be given a dedicated workspace and unfettered access to the facility and Kansas offenders. He said that’s standard practice for CoreCivic contracts.

But at the end of the day, advocates and experts say Hawaii’s experience should give Kansas second thoughts.

Beginning to use private prisons is easy. Stopping will be harder, they say.

“It was supposed to be a short-term fix,” Chesney-Lind, the professor, said. “And what it becomes instead is you get kind of hooked on it.”

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.