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Searches at Hawaii prison stricter since COs’ arrests

Officials are tightening procedures tied to searches of both visitors and COs

By Gregg K. Kakesako
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HALAWA, Hawaii — A 45-year-old prison guard accused of smuggling drugs into Halawa Correctional Facility was freed Monday after appearing in federal court, wearing white inmate garb, a belly chain, cuffs and leg shackles.

Wahiawa resident Mark Damas, an adult corrections officer at the prison, will continue employment with the Department of Public Safety but will be removed from guard duty and assigned to desk work, said his attorney, Rustam Barbee.

Federal Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren released Damas, a guard since 2004, to the custody of his wife on a $50,000 signature bond.

As part of the ongoing evaluation of prison security measures, officials are tightening procedures tied to searches of both visitors and guards, state Public Safety Director Ted Sakai said Monday.

The frequency of inmates’ random drug testing will be increased, he said.

At a news conference, Sakai said Damas’ arrest Sunday while on duty at Halawa was not a surprise since the state has been working with federal and county law enforcement officers to try to control the flow of illegal drugs into the prisons.

Damas has been charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute and possession with the intent to distribute five grams or more of methamphetamine. Damas is suspected of accepting payments for distributing contraband such as cigarettes, cigarette lighters, Krazy Glue, pipes for crack or cocaine, and narcotics such as meth, or “ice,” and various forms of cocaine to Halawa prisoners, according to a court affidavit.

On Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Nammar asked the court to restrict Damas from working at any prison or jail, saying, “He has a long history of not protecting the public.”

Kurren declined the prosecutor’s request, saying it was not the court’s function. Kurren said he would leave it up to the Public Safety Department.

Barbee said he was unable to review the criminal complaint with his new client, so the judge asked Damas whether he understood what he was being charged with.

Damas appeared calm and smiled slightly when he responded, saying, “Right.”

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Feb. 17 before Magistrate Judge Richard Puglisi.

Damas is the second prison guard this month to have been charged with smuggling meth into the Oahu prison.

HALAWA guard James “Kimo” Sanders III pleaded not guilty Jan. 13 to bribery and smuggling meth into the prison. Sanders, 31, of Kailua, was arrested at the prison Jan. 12 and charged with two counts of distributing methamphetamine; conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine; and bribery.

Sanders, who is accused of distributing five grams or more of meth on Nov. 15 and distributing 50 grams or more of meth a week later, was released to his grandmother on a $50,000 bond. His trial is set for March 18.

Sakai said Damas’ arrest is part of an ongoing investigation “to root out corruption in our facilities.”

He would not say whether more arrests are imminent.

“Contraband is a problem in almost every correctional facility in the country,” Sakai told reporters. “It’s a particular problem for us. It’s not that we are any better or any worse.”

He continued, “We recognize that contraband, especially drugs, becomes a real problem in management of the facility, safety of the employees and safety of the inmates. It also affects our ability to provide the right kind of programs for inmates.”

Sakai said prison gangs use contraband to exert control within the prisons. Sakai acknowledged that there are multiple gangs within the 1,000-inmate prison population.

Sakai said that all prison guards are supposed to be searched before entering the prisons and even patted down before starting their shift. There are 307 guards at Halawa.

If convicted of either conspiracy or distribution of 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, Sanders faces up to life in prison, with a mandatory minimum term of 10 years, and a fine of up to $10 million. The maximum penalty for the smaller distribution charge is 40 years in prison, a mandatory minimum term of five years and a fine of $5 million. The maximum penalty for the bribery charge is 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

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