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State Retrieves Inmates From Private Prisons

HONOLULU (CN) - Hawaii's new governor, Neil Abercrombie, kept his promise last week by bringing 243 inmates back to Hawaii from Arizona prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Abercrombie acted after more than a dozen inmates filed lawsuits claiming they were subjected to brutal treatment inside CCA prisons.

Hawaii, which has been strapped for prison space, has relied on two CCA prisons in Arizona to house its inmates: roughly 1,800 Hawaiian inmates at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy and about 50 at Red Rock Correctional Center.

But the Hawaii Department of Public Safety had to investigate CCA and intervene after a string of incidents brought inmate lawsuits alleging assault and battery, criminal indifference, cruel and unusual punishment, retaliation and negligence. One complaint claimed that even the warden joined in.

In December, 18 inmates at the Eloy prison claimed to have been "beaten and assaulted, including by having their heads banged on tables while they were stripped to their underwear and while their hands were handcuffed behind their backs," by a group of prison guards and "the warden himself."

According to that complaint, guards "deliberately destroyed and failed to preserve evidence of their wrongdoing, including videotapes," and "deliberately falsified reports," including threats of harm to inmates' families and death threats to inmates if they told anyone of the beatings. (Here is Courthouse News' Dec. 15 report on that lawsuit.

Then in January, a Hawaiian inmate at Saguaro sued CCA, claiming a guard forced him to give the guard a blow job in his cell.

Both lawsuits were filed against CCA. The 18 inmates also sued Hawaii, seeking a protective injunction; they claimed that Hawaii's Public Safety monitor, onsite at Saguaro, allowed the prisoner abuse incident to go unchecked.

Gov. Abercrombie brought the inmates back on Jan. 19-20, placing most of them at three Oahu facilities and 26 on Maui and the Big Island, according to Hawaiian news reports.

Public Safety Chairman Will Espero said: "If we're going to spend $60 million a year to house inmates, I'd rather spend it here in Hawaii."

Other states are using lockdowns - confining prisoners to their cells for a day - to save money by sending staff home during the lockdowns.

States use private prisons to try to reduce prison costs, particularly on salaries and benefits, as it relieves the states of pension obligations.

"If any state prison system needs relief, it's California's," Reuters reporter Jim Christie wrote last week. "The matter of its notorious overcrowding has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which could back a lower court's order to reduce the states' roughly 147,000 adult inmate population to 115,500 - still a tight squeeze in prisons designed for 84,000."

California is housing 10,300 inmates in CCA prisons, Reuters reported, and may increase that numbers to 12,850 this year. But California's prison guards union has immense political power, and surely will fight any efforts to reduce hours or benefits for prison guards.

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