HONOLULU — A handful of inmates indicted on charges of being part of a prison gang have waged a hunger strike to protest conditions at Honolulu’s Federal Detention Center.
Attorneys for the inmates say about eight stopped eating last Sunday to protest isolation in a segregated unit and conditions that include a lack of clean underwear, loss of family visits and maggots in food.
The facility’s spokesman, Jeffrey Greene, said allegations of insects in food and dirty clothes are unfounded. He said he could not confirm whether the hunger strike was taking place because of safety and security reasons.
Federal Bureau of Prisons policy on hunger strikes calls for regular medical evaluations if an inmate has not eaten for more than 72 hours. If an inmate’s life or health is threatened, “involuntary medical treatment will be administered.”
Inmate Moses Thompson is leading the hunger strike. He came up with the idea while reading in his cell about Nelson Mandela and peaceful resistance, Thompson’s attorney Neal Kugiya said.
Thompson was in an Arizona prison serving a life sentence for murder, but returned to Honolulu when he and 17 others were indicted for alleged membership in the “USO Family” gang. Some are awaiting trial, while others have pleaded guilty.
Authorities say the prison gang has spread as Hawaii sends inmates to prisons in other states because of limited space. The indictment alleges the gang was involved in drug-trafficking, bribery and violence.
Kugiya provided The Associated Press letters handwritten by Thompson and two other inmates about the hunger strike. The prisoners wrote that none of them did anything to warrant placement in the Special Housing Unit, known as the SHU, where they are segregated from the general population and in cells 23 hours per day.
The attorneys say they were told their clients were being housed in the special unit because of a lack of space.
The Bureau of Prisons can’t discuss conditions or confinement of individual inmates, spokesman Chris Burke said. But a lack of space is not typically a reason for segregated housing, he said. An inmate might be segregated for discipline or for protection, Burke said.
Louis Ching, who represents William Shinyama, who is accused of being a gang member while serving a state sentence for robbery, described the segregated unit as “dimly lit, dungeon-like.”
“There’s rows and rows of individual cells that are highly locked up,” he said. “It’s just very, very isolated.”
Attorneys have tried to take up the issue with the judge handling the case, but the courts don’t have authority over the facility, attorney Todd Eddins said. “Basically, it’s the warden’s decision,” he said.
Eddins said his client, Shadrach Unea, is not part of the hunger strike because he doesn’t think the maggots were deliberate and he eventually received more than one pair of underwear.
Some attorneys said the conditions are affecting how defendants are handling their indictments.
Shinyama, who is participating in the hunger strike, decided to plead guilty to the indictment without a deal — against his lawyer’s advice. Shinyama had only three or four years remaining on his original sentence, but now faces a mandatory sentence of 12 to 19 years, Ching said.
Shinyama just wants to go back to a state prison, Ching said.
“He couldn’t say that or else the judge would reject the plea,” he said.
Attorney Teresa Morrison said the facility’s conditions partly affected her client Clarence Butler’s decision to take a plea deal, which is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday.
Butler, who isn’t part of the hunger strike, is planning to plead guilty to allegations that he was part of an Arizona prison assault to further the gang’s control.
Inmates could claim later that their pleas were involuntary because of prison conditions, University of Hawaii criminal law professor Kenneth Lawson said.
Lawson, who served 10 months in a West Virginia federal penitentiary for obtaining prescription painkillers through fraudulent means, said inmates dread segregation.
Inmate Tineimalo Adkins, who is on strike, wants to go to trial, said his attorney, Marcus Sierra.
“The maggots in the food — I think that was the last straw for him,” Sierra said. “I hope he doesn’t intend on holding out until the very end.”