Monday, April 14, 2003

Suit claims Hawaii
gang ruled prison
in Arizona

The state of Hawaii is named
as a defendant in a lawsuit
alleging corrections abuses

By Sally Apgar

Victoriano Ortiz was 24 years old when he beat his wife to death in the abandoned bus the two shared as a home.

He broke her jaw and several ribs before he wrapped her body in a blanket, loaded it into a shopping cart and dumped it into the stream next to River Street in downtown Honolulu.

Her body was recovered near Pier 26 in Honolulu Harbor, and in 1988, Ortiz was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life with parole.

Last week, Ortiz sued the state of Hawaii and the owners of the Arizona prison where he was held, alleging failure to protect him from being beaten up by a gang of Hawaii inmates that controlled the prison to the point that guards smuggled drugs to gang members in return for protection.

Art Ortiz alleges that on April 12, 2001, members of the prison gang who call themselves the United Samoan Organization (USO) were preparing and drinking "swipe," a prison-made alcoholic brew, in the kitchen under the supervision of several guards.

Ortiz alleges that three or four USO members, who had been drinking swipe, jumped him in the prison recreation yard and beat and punched him while several guards looked on. Ortiz was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he was treated for seven days. He was later transferred to another facility.

Ortiz's federal lawsuit and other documents obtained by the Star-Bulletin give a glimpse into a rough era in the recent history of the Florence Correctional Center, a privately run prison in Florence, Ariz., managed by Corrections Corp. of America, a publicly traded company based in Nashville, Tenn.

One of the largest private-prison companies in the country, Corrections Corp., or CCA, claims it can operate prisons more cheaply than state or federal governments and still make a profit. The Florence facility is a 1,600-bed medium-security prison that houses men and women. Hawaii is its largest customer.

Ortiz's suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona, names members of USO, the state of Hawaii, CCA and others as defendants. He alleges reckless or gross negligence and "a callous disregard" for his safety.

James Propotnick, acting director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, said Saturday that as far as he knows, there is no longer the level of problems at the Florence prison that existed in 2001.

"Everything is fine there now," said Propotnick. "It is as fine now as it can be in a prison. We strive to make prisons safe for everybody. We identify problem people and segregate them."

CCA and the Florence facility did not respond to telephone calls. Also unavailable for comment was Frank Luna, who was appointed warden in May 2001.

But Arizona newspapers reported that Luna broke up USO control of the prison by segregating gang members and even shipping some to other prisons. A follow-up report by a Hawaii audit team indicated Luna began drug-testing inmates and was "weeding out dirty officers."

The follow-up report said, "The Hawaii audit team does feel there has been improvement."

But in 2001, according to Hawaii prison officials, the prison clearly was run by the USOs, who controlled drug use, work details, sex with female inmates and prison-yard beatings.

Ortiz's attorney, T. Stephen Leong, said Friday that the state, which shipped prisoners to facilities on the mainland because its own prisons were overcrowded, must share in the blame. "People are in prison for a time out and not to get beaten up," he said.

Ortiz alleges in his complaint that Pablo Sedillo, then warden of the Florence prison, "told the USOs that they could do whatever they wanted as long as they don't hurt the guards." Ortiz alleges that "in doing so Sedillo made the USOs ... managers of the facility, jeopardizing the safety of all non-USO-affiliated residents."

In April 2001, six Hawaii inmates, including Ortiz, were assaulted at the prison, and two others died of heart attacks. The events prompted the state of Hawaii to send an audit team there the same month to inspect the prison and interview guards and inmates.

At the time, there were 559 inmates from Hawaii, of which at least 100 were found to be members of the USO.

As soon as the audit team returned to Hawaii, Ted Sakai, then director of public safety, wrote an urgent letter to Correctional Corp., alerting officials that the Florence Correctional Center (FCC) "has been taken over" by the "USO family."

Sakai wrote the audit team believed that warden Sedillo "has a dependence on the gangs for governance of the facility. Meanwhile, staff members are intimidated by the inmates and are unwilling and/or unable to intervene when necessary."

Sakai wrote, "You need to take quick action ... to reassert control over the facility, even if it requires a complete and extended lockdown."

Sakai, who now serves as warden of the Waiawa Correctional Facility, could not be reached for comment.

The audit conducted by Sakai's team, which was obtained by the Star-Bulletin, concluded that "the USO family runs the facility" and "has become a defiant force in FCC. They are currently responsible for (the) majority (if not all) of the violence and disturbances in FCC.

"If this issue is not immediately addressed and corrected by warden Sedillo and his staff, Hawaii will have a serious problem to deal with."

Referring to USO recruitment, the audit said that while "most Hawaii inmates joined freely, others were physically forced to join."

The auditors reported that the USO took control of the prison "during a riot for power" on Sept. 12, 2000. The USO, it was reported, gained control over two rival gangs, called Thugs for Life and War Party.

Gang Intelligence Sgt. Patrick Kawai, one of the auditors, wrote that the USO controls "the trafficking, use, sale of illicit drugs" and oversees "the making and use of swipe ... and violent acts to inmates as well as staff."

Kawai wrote, "It is known that every recent major assault that happened was related to the USO family."

Kawai also said USO members had sex with female inmates who were detained for immigration violations and awaiting deportation. His report did not indicate whether the sex was consensual.

Kawai also reported that he discovered a 5-gallon bucket of swipe when he toured the prison kitchen.

He reported that one inmate "openly admitted that he was drunk off of swipe that was prepared in the kitchen when he assaulted" Ortiz, several other inmates and two prison guards in the recreation yard in April 2001.

Auditors said 23 inmates were involved in the fight in which Ortiz alleges he was hurt.

Another auditor reported heavy drug use at the facility and "widespread drug introduction into the facility by (FCC) staff members who are working for the USOs." The auditor said one staff member "openly admit(ted) to 'bringing in drugs.' When questioned why he did this, the staff's response was, 'For protection from the USOs.'"

The audit criticized the training and conduct of the prison guards. Kawai reported that officers "wear no restraints on their person should the need occur to restrain a hostile inmate. I never once observed an officer frisk search or strip-search an inmate. I never once observed an officer go through any inmate's property or search anything an inmate was carrying.

The lack of these simple security measures allows for more passing of contraband. Furthermore, it would appear that the inmates have no fear to transport anything on their person."

Kawai concluded: "Some (inmates) are joining the USO family just to be protected by it. Other innocent nonmembers are simply just getting beat on for no reason at all."

He wrote that the USO is "creating great tension in the general population, and it is this tension that may explode into a full-blown riot.

Inmates are afraid," and several have "come up to me and requested to return to Hawaii or to move to another facility just to get away from the USO family."

Dept. of Public Safety
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