Ads by Google Ads by Google

Senate Public Safety/ Homeland Security Committee cites dire conditions at TCF

Senate President Tuaolo Manaia Fruean
Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions put everyone at risk…

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The Territorial Correctional Facility (TCF) in Tafuna is in such a deplorable state that if something is not done about it soon, someone will get hurt.

This dire warning was made by the chairman and members of the Senate Public Safety/ Homeland Security Committee, who visited and inspected the premises including the buildings where inmates are incarcerated.

Committee chairman Senator Olo Uluao Letuli stated that the main cause of the problems at the prison, was the overcrowding of limited space, which in turn was creating more problems like the lack of privacy resulting from up to eight inmates incarcerated in one cell meant for two or three.

This in turn creates arguments and fights when differences occur, and unsanitary conditions puts everyone at risk, even TCF staff members.

Olo pointed out that all these problems stem from the huge backlog of court cases that are pending because of the inaction of the Attorney General’s Office.

He stated that the report from the director revealed that there are currently 303 inmates at the TCF and of that number, 199 are people waiting for their cases to be heard at court. Many of these cases are in for misdemeanor offenses.

The Fofo senator emphasized that the problems at the TCF have escalated to the stage where the health and lives of inmates and Corrections staff are at serious risk, because of the negligence of the director and his management team.

Committee member Senator Malaepule Saite Moliga did not mince words in his criticisms, saying that all the mandated rules and regulations pertaining to the running of correctional facilities and law enforcement procedures put in place to maintain law and order are blatantly violated.

“We all know that the problems at the prison is caused by cramming eight people in a cell meant for two or at the most, four people,” Malaepule said. “But you would think that the director and management of the prison would put inmates convicted of serious crimes together.

“But that is not the case!

“So we have inmates convicted for committing serious crimes living together with those whose cases are pending, and inmates convicted for drug-related offenses.

“They’re even cooking food inside the cells!

"Can you imagine what would happen if a fire broke out late at night and no one can escape because they're locked inside?

"Who would be blamed for this tragedy if, God forbid, it happened?

“The government of American Samoa of course.

“The government is responsible for everyone confined at the TCF.

“I urge this chamber to request the governor to make this matter a priority and do something to resolve these problems as soon as possible, before someone gets hurt.”

The matter was first raised by committee chairman Senator Olo on the second day of the ongoing Second Special Session of the 38th Legislature, where he informed members that he had received a report from the Department of Health (DOH) regarding the unhygienic and unsafe state of the TCF.

Olo stated that the Fono had already gone on its mid-term recess when he received the DOH report.

He revealed that his committee was planning to visit the TCF premises on Thursday (last week) to see for themselves if the DOH report was true. He invited any member who was free to join them.

Senate President Tuaolo Manaia Fruean stated that he would seek the advice of the Senate’s legal counsel on the matter first, as this was a Special Session with a specific agenda.

Tuaolo did not bring up the matter on the following day regarding the legal counsel’s advice on the matter, but it must have been favorable because Senator Olo reminded Senate members on Thursday about their planned visit to TCF later that morning at 10:30am.

The group visit comprised Senators Olo U. Letuli, Magalei Logovii, Malaepule S. Moliga, Ponemafua Tapeni and Fano M. Shimasaki.

Last Saturday (after Good Friday), Senator Olo revealed the findings of their visit and submitted a report from the Department of Corrections Director Semo Tauanu’u, on the present situation at the prison and the problems they are facing.

According to Olo, the building labeled Block B has been vacated and is currently being cleaned and repaired, while the inmates who had been locked there have been relocated to what used to be the Maximum Security Block.

This relocation has resulted in serious overcrowding.

He said he had brought up the matter with Senator Togiola Tulafono who pointed out that inmates are allowed to carry out the work, however under the law, they must be compensated.

Olo said that the matter had been referred to the Senate legal counsel for confirmation and to ascertain how much should be paid to the inmates for compensation.

The issue was clarified by Senator Togiola who explained that correctional facilities in some states and cities adopt a procedure whereby inmates are used to clean up and repair buildings within the prison premises.

However he said, the Fair Labor Standards Act stipulates that the inmates must be paid for services rendered, so certain systems are used to establish a Trust Fund.

The money the inmates earn for their labor is not handed to them but is deposited into their accounts so that if they have family emergencies, they can use those funds.

Otherwise, the money is kept in their accounts until they are released from prison, then they can withdraw the money so they have some ready cash to help them when they re-enter society. The experience can also be a part of their rehabilitation and they will have learned a useful skill to help them secure a job.

Togiola also expressed his concerns with regard to the letter from the TCF Director Semo Tauanu'u which according to Togiola was not only vague about what going on at the TCF but he presented numbers that don't add up.

"On page one, he says that the headcount of the inmate population is 303," Togiola pointed out. "Then he says that from January to March 30, 2024, a total of 151 inmates have been released, so there should be 152 inmates plus three juveniles left inside.

"But if you look at the information details of the buildings housing the inmates cells, the number of inmates currently incarcerated there is 209.

“So if you take the overall headcount of 303 inmates and subtract 209, the answer is 94 which means that 94 inmates are unaccounted for.

"Now my question is, why are the numbers not adding up in this report?

“I have recommended to Chairman Olo to subpoena the director of this new department to come here and explain this discrepancy because this is a serious matter.

“If he says there are currently 209 inmates confined in the buildings inside the prison compound, and the headcount of the total population was 303, where are the other 94 inmates?”

Senate President Tuaolo asked Togiola if he wanted to subpoena the TCF director for a hearing as part of the ongoing Special Session's agenda.

Tuaolo also wanted to know if this could be done because according to the law, discussions during Special Sessions must not deviate from the issues for which the governor called the session.

Togiola replied that this was indeed a serious matter and that there shouldn't be any trouble.

Tuaolo stated that he will refer the matter to the Senate legal counsel before issuing a subpoena.

Nevertheless, Tuaolo agreed with the seriousness of the matter because if worse comes to worse and someone is injured, the government is liable.

He stated that the issues mentioned in the report from Public Safety/ Homeland Security Committee was preposterous — like inmates cooking meals inside their cells. He said nothing like this happened when he was the Police Commissioner during the Togiola administration.

"Aside from the obvious scenario of things that could go wrong, like a fire breaking out in the building where the inmates are locked, what if an inmate throws boiling hot scalding cooking oil at another inmate, causing serious injury, that could kill him?” Tuaolo asked. "Who is responsible for this? The government is responsible!"

The Senate president suggested that maybe the governor and the AG should visit the TCF and see for themselves all the problems the inmates and TCF staff are facing because of overcrowding which stems from the huge backlog of court cases at the AG's Office.

These problems are not new and Samoa News reported on them last year when a convicted inmate who is serving time at the TCF revealed them all in an email he sent from inside the prison.

According to the inmate who requested anonymity, he stated that had had witnessed firsthand for the last 10 years, "the blatant negligence of the infrastructure (Bravo building/Pending inmates).

“This building should be condemned.

“Not only is it not fit for housing, it is severely overcrowded! ( I am already in contact with the federal authorities concerning this matter.)

"Most of the toilets and showers don’t work, ventilation is poor; electrical wires are hanging down and used as makeshift outlets; it is filthy and the stench from the broken toilets fill the air.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg as to what is really going on in here."

The inmate who claimed that he was a former counselor in a prison in the mainland and that he was familiar with how a prison/ correctional facility is to be operated.

"Among the daily operations, there are many structured guidelines (which are stated clearly in the Inmate Orientation Handbook) in place to assist in behavioral conduct and so forth.

“Here in American Samoa, a gross injustice has been ongoing for years with regards to how the Territorial Correctional Facility should be operated.

"The morale and the overall 'concept' here is demoralizing; hence the spike in tensions here in the compound.

“Fights break out 5- 6 times a week.

“Escapes have become the norm.

“Even the guards are fed up — No overtime pay and in conflict with administration and inmates. It’s a no-win situation for them.

"My job here, not only as a model inmate, but I use my experience to better the overall circumstances in here.

“I serve as a counselor, music teacher, chef, and the bridge between the inmates and the administration.

“It is my belief that if it weren’t for our Fa'asamoa culture, the facility would be in an uproar.

"It is my prayer that in the near future, the appropriate personnel can collectively arrange for the TCF to be in compliance with Federal standards, and to lift restrictions on visitations," the anonymous inmate concluded.

The TCF Director Semo Tauanu'u has been subpoenaed to appear in a hearing of the Public Safety/ Homeland Security Committee tomorrow morning, to explain the issues raised in the committee's report and discrepancies in his own report.