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HRDC lawsuit filed over Hawaii prisoner murdered in mainland prison

Maui Now, Jan. 1, 2012.
HRDC lawsuit filed over Hawaii prisoner murdered in mainland prison - Maui Now 2012

State and prison operator sued in inmate’s slaying

Paia man allegedly in same Arizona unit with violent gang members

February 16, 2012

The Maui News and The Associated Press

The family of a murdered 26-year-old Paia man is suing the state and the company that ran the private Arizona prison where he was held, alleging the defendants failed to protect him while he was incarcerated.

Bronson Nunuha was stabbed more than 140 times by other prisoners and found dead in his cell Feb. 18, 2010, at Saguaro Correctional Facility in Eloy, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in 1st Circuit Court in Honolulu.

Along with the state, the lawsuit names Corrections Corporation of America, which ran the prison.

"Bronson's death was senseless and preventable," said attorney Kenneth Walczak, who represents Nunuha's family along with the Human Rights Defense Center and the ACLU of Hawai'i. "The officials who failed to prevent that death and who violated the safety rules designed to protect him must be held accountable."

Nunuha's mother, Davina Waialae, said her family has not been able to find closure in her son's death.

"It's still hard for my family," she said during a news conference on the lawsuit. "My grandson has to grow up without a dad."

Nunuha's 7-year-old son lives on Maui.

Nunuha was serving a five-year prison term for burglaries of Paia businesses in 2005. He was nine months away from being released when he was forced to share housing with extremely violent, gang-affiliated prisoners in the same unit, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the state agreed to and tolerated insufficient staffing levels at the site where Nunuha was confined. That allowed dangerous conditions to persist, according to the lawsuit.

Further, it alleges that the state acted negligently, recklessly and with deliberate indifference to Nunuha's safety. It says Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, Tenn., put profits ahead of prisoner safety.

The company also is accused of failing to properly staff Nunuha's unit, separate members of rival gangs, and separate gang members from nongang members. It says the company also ignored signs that Nunuha was in danger.

On the day Nunuha was killed, one counselor was assigned to oversee about 50 prisoners in the unit where Nunuha was housed, according to the lawsuit. The counselor had opened Nunuha's cell and then had gone to her office, where several inmates distracted her, the lawsuit says. It was then that two prisoners went into the cell and attacked Nunuha, who was beaten and stabbed.

"They stabbed him more than 140 times with two different weapons, and carved the name of their gang into his chest," the lawsuit says. "As he lay dying, other prisoners mopped up the bloody footprints leading away from his cell."

The assailants "showered, changed clothes and remingled with the other prisoners," the lawsuit says, before the counselor discovered Nunuha's lifeless body.

In July 2010, Hawaii inmates Miti Maugaotega Jr. and Micah Kanahele were indicted on charges of first-degree murder and gang-related charges in Nunuha's killing.

State Department of Public Safety Director Jodie Maesaka-Hirata said the department can't comment on the lawsuit until officials are able to review it with the attorney general's office.

"We are saddened by the tragic situation that happened at Saguaro, and we are working on ways to improve the prison system," she said in a statement.

Steven Owen, a Corrections Corporation of America spokesman, said the company can't comment on the specifics of the lawsuit but would respond through the legal process at the appropriate time.

"The Saguaro Correctional Center is staffed by well-trained, dedicated professionals who operate at the highest standards of the industry," he said in an email. "At Saguaro, and all CCA facilities, we take the protection and treatment of the inmates in our care very seriously."

Hawaii houses about 1,800 inmates - one-third of the state's total - at the company's prisons on the Mainland because it doesn't have enough space to hold them in the islands.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has said he wants to bring Hawaii's inmates on the Mainland home. Still, the state awarded a three-year, $136.5 million contract to the Corrections Corporation of America so it could continue keeping the inmates in Arizona.

The complaint seeks unspecified monetary damages.