Jury rules warden not liable for sexual assault at Hawaii Women’s Prison

A federal jury on Wednesday refused to award monetary damages to a group of former and current female inmates who were sexually abused by guards at Kailua Women’s Prison. Lawyers representing some of the women said they would ask the judge in the case to overturn the decision.

Attorneys Terrance Revere and Richard Wilson also said they will file a new request with Federal District Court Judge Jill Otake for an injunction to force correctional officers to install video cameras in prison control centers, where many of the sexual assaults took place.

Along with that filing, Wilson said the attorneys will write checks totaling $2,500 to actually pay for the cameras the state should finally install in the control centers at the Women’s Community Correctional Center to prevent future abuses. They will offer this money to finally stop what Revere called “the WCCC rape factory.”

Women's Community Correctional Center.
A federal jury ruled that the former warden of the Women’s Community Correctional Center is not liable for monetary damages for a series of sexual assaults of inmates by staff there. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The jury was told that one of the correctional officers involved pleaded guilty and another pleaded guilty to multiple counts of second-degree sexual assault in cases involving the women, but declined to find the warden responsible for the Supervision of the officers liable for damages was responsible in the case.

Revere said he didn’t know what the jury of five women and four men thought, but “we believe this gives the department a green light to continue ignoring the rights and safety of prisoners.”

The lawsuit was originally filed against the state, the late Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda, former WCCC Warden Eric Tanaka and former WCCC staffers Chavon Freitas, Taofi Magalei Jr., Brent Baumann, Gauta Va’a and James Sinatra.

Assistant Attorney General Skyler Cruz told the jury Monday that Tanaka removed each of the officers charged with sexual assault as soon as Tanaka learned of the allegations and that he had opened an investigation into each case. He also demanded that the Department of Internal Affairs of the Ministry of Public Security take control of the investigation.

The officers involved in the attacks had no history of wrongdoing, and “these officers went out of their way to keep a secret, they didn’t want to be caught,” Cruz said. Tanaka can’t be in jail every hour of the day and can’t respond to issues if he doesn’t know about them, Cruz told jurors.

Cruz also told the jury that Tanaka wanted upgrades to the prison’s CCTV systems, but “he didn’t have the power to do it himself.”

The attorney general’s office said in a written statement that the department “appreciates the time and service of the jury and their consideration of the evidence and the law in reaching a verdict.”

Baumann pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree sexual assault in state court in 2020, and Va’a pleaded no appeal to four counts of second-degree sexual assault that same year. Both were sentenced to five years probation.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Leinette Reyes, Dana Baba, Tiana Soto, Monica Alves Peralto and Shawna Tallman. The lawsuit alleges the fear and anxiety caused by the sexual assault prompted inmate Dawnielle Panlasigui to kill herself and her estate is pursuing the case on behalf of her family.

During Monday’s closing arguments, Revere asked the jury to award the women $1 million each in damages plus an additional $100,000 in punitive damages. He also asked the jury to award $3 million to Panlasigui’s estate.

The women’s attorneys have already won default judgments against some of the law enforcement officers, but “we can’t get blood from a beet for these women,” Revere said. He said he doubted the women would get anything if the jury’s decision stood.

Court records show that Tanaka never intended to install cameras in the control centers, but Cruz told the jury Tanaka wanted to place more cameras elsewhere, including outside of the control booths. That way, the cameras could monitor who goes in and out of the control centers, and Cruz found that inmates are not allowed inside the control centers.

According to previous court rulings in the lawsuit, staff in some cases offered inmates “the promise of privilege,” but any sexual contact between an inmate and staff is a criminal offense under Hawaiian law because prisoners cannot legally give consent.

Revere said one of the wardens gave one of the women half of a candy bar after an assault and another half of a peanut butter sandwich after the encounter, but Revere dismissed any suggestion that the inmates were essentially being bribed for sexual favors.

“To say that these women were basically doing this as prostitutes is even more angry and ridiculous,” he said. He said no evidence had been presented that there was a “quid pro quo” and said on at least two occasions women were injured in the assaults.

Womens Community Correctional Center Hawaii prison barbed wire barriers.
The lawsuit alleged the state knew that female inmates could be sexually abused in the prison’s control centers because it had happened before. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

According to a federal court filing, about two dozen of the sexual assaults occurred at the control stations in 2015 and 2016, and the lawsuit claims the state has known since 2012 that officers could assault inmates in the control booths without being observed.

That’s because another prisoner named Stormy Rae Smith was sexually assaulted in a prison control booth in 2012. Correctional Officer Irwin Ah-Hoy later pleaded not to contest two counts of second- and third-degree sexual assault in that case and was fired.

Smith later sued the state. Her lawsuit was settled in 2017 after the state and the guard involved agreed to pay her $50,000.

“Ten years from 2012 to 2022 with no change in procedures, women are still not being tracked and there are no cameras to protect them which would have made this situation 100% avoidable,” Revere said. “It’s bureaucratic arrogance, stupidity and disinterest to the max.”

This is the second time this year that the issue of video cameras has come up publicly at the WCCC. A tour of the prison by Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission officials in August revealed that more than 40% of the facility’s video cameras were not working at the time.

Commission coordinator Christin Johnson called this lack of working cameras “a huge, huge red flag” because it makes it harder to investigate fights, allegations of sexual misconduct, smuggling of smuggling and other issues.