The July afternoon was warm and humid, another good day for the beach. Johnathan Namauleg left his parent’s house on South Lehua Street and walked toward the water. He was a wisp of a young man — 5′ 5” tall and 115 pounds — and wore a blue T-shirt, baggy shorts, and his near-constant smile. Born and raised on the island of Saipan, he had moved to Hawaii several months earlier and would begin his senior year at Maui High in the fall. Until then, he was mostly killing time in teenage fashion: smoking pot, thinking about girls, posting ill-advised updates on Facebook. And because this was Maui, hanging out at the beach.
It was a 25-minute walk to Hoaloha Park, a small stretch of sand on the Kahului harbor. The park features Hawaii’s largest traditional hale — the word, pronounced “HAH-leh,” means home — an open-air hut made from branches and covered by a thatched grass roof, which had been built by a local canoe club. The hale was filled with the shoes of youth taking part in a summer paddling camp. A club employee accused Johnathan of trying to steal a pair, the two exchanged angry words, and he ordered Johnathan to leave. Johnathan stomped off but returned hours later, after the sun had set. Sitting alone under the hale’s grass roof, he smoked a cigarette and looked out at the harbor’s calm water. The sky was clearing, the temperature had dropped to the mid 70s, and the afternoon gusts had subsided, leaving only a gentle breeze. Just before 8:30 PM, on July 26, 2012, Johnathan stood up and took his red Bic lighter to the hale’s grass roof.
Members of the canoe club had finished practice and stood around chatting in a nearby parking lot. They initially thought someone was inside the hale with a flashlight. Then came a shout: “It’s on fire!” They converged on the hale and quickly doused the flames, which had only blackened a small section of the roof. The damage was later estimated at $3,000; no one was hurt. Johnathan disappeared into the darkness.
He might have never been identified if he hadn’t returned to the beach the next day, talking about what he had done, apparently unaware that he had committed a crime. He was arrested that afternoon and charged with second-degree arson, a felony. The 18-year-old faced up to ten years in prison.
Johnathan’s parents — his mother, Arlene, and stepfather, Joe — had long worried about their son, who always seemed to stumble into trouble. As a young child, he had been classified as learning disabled and diagnosed with ADHD. At 18, he still often misspelled his own name and only read at the first-grade level. “His mind is not his age,” a psychiatrist once told Arlene. He also said that Johnathan should be monitored 24 hours a day. Though she worked full-time as a clerk at a convenience store, Arlene had devoted the rest of her time to watching over her younger son. Now a single impulsive act threatened to send him away for years. He was mentally disabled and petite; it wasn’t hard to imagine the many ways prison might scar him.
Their fears were soon realized. Over the next three years, Johnathan bounced from a Maui jail to two different prisons. Guards would flag him as an “easy mark,” reporting that he had the maturity of a young child and that his small size made him vulnerable to other inmates. Johnathan reported that he feared for his life and wished to be placed in protective custody. He feigned suicidal thoughts in order to be removed from the general population.He was assaulted. It’s possible he was raped.
What his parents didn’t know at first was that in 1995, when Johnathan was just two years old, Hawaii had begun sending prisoners to the mainland. The policy was proposed as a temporary measure to relieve overcrowding. But more than 20 years later, 1,300 inmates — 43 percent of Hawaii’s state prisoners — remain in the continental United States, inside a notorious private facility in the Arizona desert, midway between Tucson and Phoenix, nearly 3,000 miles from home. And that was where Johnathan’s prison odyssey would end in his mysterious death.
It’s hard to know what happens behind the prison’s walls. The Saguaro Correctional Center — named after a cactus native to the Sonoran Desert and based in the small town of Eloy — is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), recently renamed CoreCivic, the country’s largest private-prison firm. The company isn’t legally obligated to respond to public information requests, and, as I and others have discovered, Hawaii officials tend to follow CCA’s lead, putting up roadblocks to even the most basic questions. Publicly, Hawaii has released little more than this: On the evening of August 6, 2015, Johnathan was found in his Arizona cell, facedown and unconscious, and was declared dead later that night, several days before what would have been his 22nd birthday.
There is a video of Johnathan when he was 14, back when the family lived in Guam. His older brother, Vincent, has positioned a camera to capture himself shadowboxing in their bedroom. Moments after the video begins, Johnathan opens the door to the room and steps inside, a goofy grin on his face. While Johnathan lounges on a bunk bed, Vincent, who is shirtless, unleashes a furious string of punches: jab, jab, cross, hook, jab. After watching for a bit, Johnathan stands up in the background and begins to dance to the beat, then strips down to his briefs, bunches them into a wedgie, and shakes his butt at the camera. Vincent continues to attack an imaginary foe, unaware that his fierce training video has been hijacked.
“That was Johnathan,” says his mother, Arlene. “He was always joking around and never took anything seriously.” She smiles faintly and looks out the kitchen window into the bright winter sun. We are inside her cozy town house in Antioch, a suburb in California’s Bay Area. Arlene and Joe moved here in 2014, when Joe was transferred by the USDA, where he is a soil conservationist. Joe and Arlene had known each other in high school and reconnected years later, and were married in Saipan in 2007. It was Joe’s job that had taken the family from Saipan to Guam, and then to Maui.
Arlene has a bronze face and shares her son’s high cheekbones and wide eyes. She is slowly recovering from her son’s loss, she says. For a long time, she couldn’t feel anything, which she knew wasn’t healthy. Now she feels more, but what she feels is hard to take. Her five-month-old daughter, Maisa, squirms on her lap. “When we talked on the phone from Arizona, the first thing Johnathan always said was that he looked forward to meeting his sister,” she says. Maisa was born 15 days after Johnathan died.
An urn that holds his ashes is on a table in the living room — the family will bury Johnathan in Saipan, next to Arlene’s grandmother. A framed grade school picture of Johnathan hangs on the wall. He sports an overgrown buzz cut and wears an orange and black baseball jersey. “School was always a challenge,” says Arlene. Early on, after her son was diagnosed with significant learning disabilities, he was assigned a full-time aide in the classroom. He had a hard time sitting still, even for five minutes. During his freshman year of high school, a doctor prescribed Johnathan Concerta for his ADHD. The medication helped him focus. “He was like a different person,” says Arlene. But it also made him severely nauseous. He stopped taking it after less than a year. By then he had discovered pot, a drug he found more effective at calming him down and settling his thoughts. “He loved to smoke weed,” says Arlene. “And when he was high, he became just like when he drank his medication. His mind stopped moving so fast. He could focus.”
He was caught with pot several times in school. Once he was suspended for two weeks. Another time he was briefly sent to Guam’s equivalent of juvenile hall. Joe frowned on his stepson’s pot use, especially because he and Arlene had two young boys in the house: Leonard, Arlene’s son from a previous relationship, and Matua, born to Joe and Arlene in 2008. “We tried time-outs,” says Joe, who sits by Arlene’s side. “We grounded him, took away privileges, took away allowances. That didn’t work.” Joe, who is short and stocky with a clean-shaven head, attributes much of Johnathan’s lack of discipline to having grown up without a father. But that absence may have been for the best: His biological father, whom Arlene left when Johnathan was six, has a long and violent criminal record.
Then came the move to Maui, and the fire. Bail was set at $20,110, well beyond what the family could pay. Johnathan served his pretrial detention at the Maui Community Correctional Center. Arlene’s work schedule overlapped with the jail’s visiting hours, so she was only able to see him a handful of times a month. He usually told her that everything was going well and spent his time talking about the people he met inside, whom he called his “friends”; Johnathan tended to view everyone as a friend. But, one time, he broke down in tears. “He was scared, but he didn’t tell me what was bothering him,” says Arlene.
A probation officer interviewed jail staff for her pre-sentencing report, which offers some clues. She wrote that Johnathan was diagnosed with borderline intellectual functioning, a cognitive disability that can make it hard to adapt to new environments, such as jail. Johnathan’s teacher in the jail and an education specialist said they were both “very concerned” about him; the education specialist estimated that Johnathan, who had never been formally tested, had at most an IQ of 70. They recommended that he enter a supportive-housing facility for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Other jail staff told the officer that Johnathan was an “easy target” due to his “limited cognitive functioning and emotional immaturity.” She noted that “inmates may have harassed and coerced him, taken his commissary, etc.” He was placed on suicide watch four times. Later, he told guards at the facility that he only said he wanted to cut himself because he was afraid of his cellmates and wished to be housed alone. He certainly left jail spooked. When the officer approached Johnathan to hand him a paper to sign, she wrote that “he jumped away as if he were startled or thought he was going to be hit or hurt.”
“The incarceration of the defendant may create an extreme hardship for him,” she concluded in her report. One option she presented was to reduce the charge to third-degree arson, the least severe category, and give Johnathan five years’ probation. The judge concurred. On January 18, 2013, after spending 183 days behind bars, Johnathan was released under the condition that he regularly submit to alcohol and drug testing.
Arlene marched her son right back to Maui High. Over the next several months, she could tell that Johnathan, while still struggling to focus, was making an effort in school that she hadn’t seen before. That spring, Arlene bumped into one of Johnathan’s special-education teachers at Walmart. She pulled Arlene aside to say that Johnathan was a wonderful kid who was often helpful in class, a report that had Arlene glowing for a week. In May, Arlene and her mother drove over to Maui High’s football field for the graduation ceremony. Joe stayed back to prepare the evening’s feast: rice, barbecued chicken, ribs, and cake. Johnathan had earned a “community based instruction” certificate, part of a program designed to help students with disabilities prepare for independent living. Looking sharp in a bright blue gown and cap, he was a jumble of anxious energy.
“I’m so happy, and I’m so nervous,” he announced in the car. “I can’t believe I made it.”
“It was a really big thing for him,” says Arlene. It was big for her, too. At home, she had created chores and projects for them to do together, just so he would remain in her sight. She went over his schoolwork, met with his teachers, reminded him dozens of times about meetings he couldn’t miss. She had learned never to tell him to do two things at the same time — otherwise he’d forgot both of them. So when she heard her son’s name called out and watched him walk across the stage, a feeling of deep relief washed over Arlene. Johnathan had made it.
After high school, he created an account with LearnUp, an online platform that takes entry-level job seekers through short training videos. He completed seven — the last explained how to dress for a job interview. It evidently worked: He was hired as a prep cook and dishwasher at L&L, a Hawaiian barbecue chain. At the age of 19, he had his first job, a significant step toward independent living. He talked to Arlene about enrolling in community college. He began to think about moving to Washington State to live with his brother Vincent, who worked as a flight attendant with American Airlines.
“For a while,” recalls Arlene, “he was doing good.”
Two weeks after Johnathan’s graduation ceremony, George Rowan, an inmate at Oahu’s largest jail, woke up to find that his cellmate, Jason McCormick, was crushing his neck in a chokehold. Guards arrived in time to pull McCormick off — which couldn’t have been easy. McCormick was six feet tall and muscular, and had trained for nearly two decades in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The 38-year-old had fought in three mixed martial arts bouts, and won two with a maneuver called a “rear naked choke.” The choke cuts off the supply of oxygen to the brain and quickly causes unconsciousness. If it’s not released, it leads to brain damage and, eventually, death. Rowan was fortunate to only suffer a separated shoulder.
Rowan and McCormick had shared the cell for less than a day. Rowan was awaiting trial for a nonviolent drug case; McCormick was being tried for a cold-case murder that had captured local headlines. He was charged in the 1996 strangling death of Robert Henderson, a visiting professor from the University of Pittsburgh. It had been a grisly crime: Henderson was found in a Honolulu condo with the words i rape little boys so i must die written on his body, the pen lodged in his leg.
McCormick was not identified at the time as a suspect in the murder, but it seems that he never recovered from his guilt. The following years found him drinking up to 40 beers a day and in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Most of the time he admitted himself, telling medical staff that he was worried he couldn’t control his urge to strangle more people, according to his inmate file. He suffered hallucinations, tried to hang himself multiple times, and once heard “the voice of God telling him to go into the mountains and kill himself.” He was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which shares the symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar, and was prescribed more than 13 medications over the years.
In 2008, while at a psychiatric hospital, McCormick called the police and confessed to murdering Henderson. When he was released from the hospital, he went to the police station and confessed again. He told the police that he and Henderson had been drinking together when Henderson made a pass at him, which sent McCormick into a rage. He would also later reveal that he had been molested by his stepfather as a young boy.
McCormick was in pretrial detention waiting for a verdict when he attacked Rowan. The verdict came down three weeks later, on June 26, 2013: guilty, second-degree murder. The sentence was life with the possibility of parole. He, too, was bound for Arizona.
At some point during the summer of 2013, Johnathan began to smoke pot again. “He’d come home high and start cooking,” remembers Arlene. “Cooking was always one of his passions.” Over the years, Arlene had come to the conclusion that marijuana relieved her son’s symptoms of ADHD. But she knew that a negative drug test could send him back behind bars for years.
“I sat him down to try and make him understand how bad it would be if he breaks his probation. He didn’t say anything, just like, ‘OK, yeah.’ Still, every time he came home high.” Arlene had been taking him to the weekly appointments with his probation officer, but now he wasn’t around when the time came to leave. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she says. “I tried my best, but I couldn’t stop him or lock him in the house. He was an adult.”
In September, Johnathan spent 30 days in jail for violating probation. When he was released, he posted a photo on Facebook, his baseball cap on backward and a wide smile across his face. His freedom was short-lived. Less than a month later, he was back in custody for failing to show up for a drug test. He remained in jail for the next six months, until June 2014, when Judge Joseph E. Cardoza revoked his probation. “It looks like your drug problem kind of got out of control,” he told Johnathan. “When that starts to happen, everything starts to fall apart. You have some serious issues to work on.” Cardoza sentenced him to five years in prison.
Johnathan entered Hawaii’s prison system in Maui, but was transferred in July to the Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu. Halawa is the largest prison in Hawaii, but not nearly large enough. Designed for 586 inmates, it held 1,124 prisoners the month before Johnathan arrived. So Johnathan wasn’t in Oahu for long. Two months later, he wrote to Arlene. He started with his usual 12-word greeting: “Miss you guys so much how u been long time no see.” Then came a twist. “Mom guess what I’m here in Arizona.”
“Arizona?” said Arlene, when they spoke over the phone. “What are you doing there?”
The origins of the Hawaii-to-Arizona prison pipeline can be traced to 1985, when prison overcrowding and an ACLU lawsuit led to federal oversight of Hawaii’s prisons. That year, the state held 2,000 inmates. A decade later, the number of inmates had nearly doubled, driven in part by a crystal-meth epidemic.
To manage this sharp rise, in December 1995, Hawaii sent its first 300 inmates to a pair of private prisons in Texas run by the now-defunct Bobby Ross Group. Two months later, one of those inmates escaped, kidnapped and sexually assaulted a woman, and fled to Mexico. Over the next three years, the Texas prisons were the site of numerous riots, fires, and a 100-person brawl that left one inmate dead. But in 1996, Hawaii had established mandatory minimum sentences for felony methamphetamine offenders, which only further clogged state facilities, so more inmates were sent away to the mainland. Another 300 went to the same Bobby Ross facilities in Texas, but most went to prisons operated by the rapidly growing CCA: 302 to a facility in Minnesota, 180 to another in Oklahoma, 128 to Tennessee.
Hawaii’s solution to prison overcrowding brought new problems — chief among them oversight. “In this kind of extreme situation, when inmates aren’t kept in-state, you don’t have families, reporters, and attorneys to keep an eye on the situation,” says Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in prison oversight. “That makes independent oversight even more essential.” The form of oversight can vary. California has an outside agency that monitors the corrections department. In Ohio, a long-standing legislative-oversight committee makes unannounced prison inspections and reports their findings. Hawaii doesn’t have any such oversight. And from the beginning, Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) has shown itself to be aloof when presented with evidence about dangerous conditions facing its inmates in mainland prisons.
In 1998, citing months of riots and fires, Texas threatened to shut down one of the Bobby Ross prisons that housed inmates from Oklahoma and Hawaii. Oklahoma, in response, brought its prisoners home. Keith Kaneshiro, then head of Hawaii’s DPS, reasserted that he was satisfied with the company, calling its leadership “very responsive.” At a second Bobby Ross facility in Texas, which housed Montana and Hawaii inmates, Montana investigators discovered that prisoners were going hungry. Montana canceled its contract. But Hawaii continued to send inmates, even after the US Department of Justice issued a 1998 report that concluded conditions there amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Among many problems associated with the CCA prisons that held Hawaii’s inmates, the cell doors have a pattern of opening when they shouldn’t. In 2005, at a prison in Mississippi, 20 doors in a disciplinary unit opened in the middle of the night. A number of inmates attacked a fellow prisoner, who suffered severe brain damage. (The Honolulu Advertiser reported that Hawaii prison staff admitted a guard had been “compromised” by a prison gang.) Two years later, doors at CCA’s Red Rock prison in Arizona opened on four different occasions. An inmate was stabbed but survived. Alarmed prisoners reached a reporter from the Honolulu Advertiser and complained that the suspicious openings allowed prison gangs to attack protective-custody inmates. After the article appeared, Clayton Frank, the interim director of DPS at the time, said that while he was “troubled” by the paper’s account, CCA generally did a “tremendous” job.
Between 2000 and 2008, Hawaii’s inmate population grew by roughly a fifth, to nearly 6,000. Hawaii’s relationship with CCA deepened with the opening, in 2007, of the Saguaro Correctional Center: Its 1,926 beds were contracted exclusively to handle Hawaii’s overflow. Consolidating male inmates at a single prison — they had previously been scattered across three facilities in three states — ought to have facilitated better oversight. Yet major security incidents continued. In February 2010, two inmates fatally stabbed Saguaro inmate Bronson Nunuha 140 times in an area of the prison known as the “November segregation unit.” Four months later, there was another murder in the November unit. This time, it was a mentally challenged inmate named Clifford Medina, who was strangled to death by his cellmate. The families of both dead inmates sued, and CCA settled the cases out of court under confidential terms.
Later that year, reacting to the murders and a new lawsuit by multiple prisoners alleging abuse by guards, Hawaii’s then governor, Neil Abercrombie, pledged to bring the state’s inmates home. “It costs money,” he said. “It costs lives. It costs communities. It destroys families. It is dysfunctional all the way around — socially, economically, politically, and morally.”
But nothing of the sort occurred. In 2011, Hawaii, still facing prison-capacity issues, signed a new contract with CCA for Saguaro, which has since been renewed twice. Last July, Hawaii awarded CCA a new three-year contract, at an estimated cost of $45 million a year.
“It’s been about political cowardice and the cost of [building] a new prison,” says Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor at the University of Hawaii who studies incarceration. “It’s a very abhorrent policy, but the state has more or less normalized it.”
Johnathan was booked into Saguaro at 9:59 PM on September 4, 2014. The next day, he was issued three extra-large pairs of khaki pants and shirts, which swallowed his tiny frame, along with an ID badge. He was now CCA inmate #2159249.
During his first month at Saguaro, Johnathan completed a parenting class and was making his way through “Life Principles Community Program,” a Christianity-based program designed to help inmates make better decisions. He applied for, and was accepted into, the 120-bed “faith pod,” where prisoners are encouraged to deepen their religious faith. He started to decorate his letters home with crosses. On November 30, he wrote Arlene, “Guess what I just got baptize from Jesus Christ. I now a Christian.”
They spoke twice, sometimes three times a week. “He talked about God a lot — that’s not something he would do before,” she says. “He loved it in the faith pod.” At the end of every call, Johnathan would say a rambling prayer for the family.
There was one hint in Johnathan’s prison file that he might not have been doing as well as he let on. In the middle of November, CCA received a report that he had been involved in sexual activity in a shower. Johnathan was brought to the medical office, but he denied that he felt unsafe and returned to his cell. Several months later, when he filled out a required sexual abuse screening form, CCA staff identified him as a potential victim, as he appeared naïve and young, and had no previous history of being incarcerated. In that screening, Johnathan noted that he felt unable to defend himself.
Overall, however, his first seven months in Arizona appear to have been relatively stable. Johnathan remained in the same cell, MC-66, and spent six hours a day engaged in faith pod programming. His teachers generally characterized him as careful and cooperative, noting that he showed initiative and never missed class. On April 21, 2015, he was awarded a certificate for completing an advanced seminar on “the seven Biblical principles of life: Design, Authority, Responsibility, Ownership, Suffering, Moral Purity, and Success.” He earned other certificates, too, for participating in workshops on financial planning and anger management. All were proudly sent home to Arlene.
Then, in June, Johnathan was kicked out of the faith pod. According to his disciplinary records, he was “being disruptive and interrupting group.” The faith pod is considered one of the safest sections of the prison, where inmates “study and learn 24-7,” according to Pastor Roy Yamamoto, a former Saguaro inmate who now visits the prison to minister to inmates. As soon as he was moved out, Johnathan was desperate to return. On June 22, he wrote his case manager and asked to be let back in: “I wanna make a change of my life, thank you can you give me a chance.”
Johnathan had been told that he needed to wait six months before reapplying to the pod. So when his request was received, he was written up for failing to follow rules and “hindering staff in the performance of their duties.” This was considered a “major offense,” with a maximum penalty of 30 days of disciplinary segregation. On July 4, he was again written up. This time, he had refused to return to his cell, because, as he told CCA staff, he feared for his life. This was also a major offense. For the violations, he received 60 days of segregation. He would spend the last month of his life in the November unit.
Jason McCormick was shipped to Saguaro five months earlier, on January 30, 2015. In early February, during his initial mental health evaluation, he told CCA staff that he was in prison for murder and had other “homicide related attempts” in the past, an apparent reference to his trying to strangle former cellmate George Rowan while in Hawaii. In March, he was removed from his cell, which he shared with another person, and brought to the medical unit after telling a shift supervisor that he felt overstimulated, claustrophobic, and homicidal.
On the afternoon of July 10, after again being placed with a cellmate, he told CCA staff that he would “hurt others if he was housed with anyone.” He was shackled and transferred to a single cell for monitoring. Once the guard unlocked his restraints, McCormick began to slam his head into the cell door. After four warnings to stop, he retreated to the back of the cell, where he continued to bang his head on the wall. He stopped only when hit with pepper spray. Like Johnathan, he received 60 days of disciplinary segregation for failing to follow rules, and another 30 days for threatening to harm another person.
As McCormick’s behavior grew more erratic, he stopped taking his medication, according to Patty Sells, the prison’s health-services administrator. His medical records are confidential, so it’s unknown what medication — or combination of medications — he was on. But at earlier periods, according to his prison file, he had taken a variety of antipsychotics, including Seroquel, Abilify, and Risperdal, along with lithium and Depakote for bipolar disorder.
On July 28, six days after being released from constant watch — and still off his meds — he was placed with a male inmate named Alison Matsuda. Two weeks later, during an interview with Eloy detective Roy Garrison, McCormick said that once Matsuda entered the cell, he felt his anxiety rise, but was afraid to alert prison staff because he didn’t want to be written up again for threatening others. Instead, he prayed and did breathing exercises. When guards removed Matsuda from his cell, less than 11 hours later, McCormick took it as a sign that his prayers had been answered. The shift supervisor who issued the transfer order, Richard Acuña, failed to respond to multiple calls from Garrison. But prison guards would tell Garrison they believed McCormick and Matsuda were separated because McCormick had stopped taking his medication and could hurt Matsuda, who was serving a ten-year sentence for setting a man on fire.
A week after Matsuda’s removal, during a mental health evaluation, McCormick told CCA staff that he wanted to confess to another murder — in addition to his murder of the professor, Robert Henderson, for which he was serving life. According to the Eloy Police investigation, this information was “passed along to CCA’s investigators, who in turn began the process of notifying Hawaiian authorities.”
It’s not known how detailed his confession was to CCA — the company’s only response to my request for comment on the details of this article was, “While we can’t speak to the specifics of pending litigation, CoreCivic is committed to the safety and security of those entrusted to our care.” Several months later, though, he penned a letter with specifics to the attorney representing George Rowan, who was suing Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety for placing him with McCormick. Back in August 2013, a 48-year-old named Brian Kim, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, was found unresponsive in his cell at the Oahu Community Correction Center. A sheet was wrapped around his neck and tied to the top bunk bed. The coroner concluded that it had been a suicide. McCormick wrote that he had “choked out and killed my neighbor, Brian Kim, and covered it up using one of the oldest prison tricks in the book.” The death took place just two months after his failed attempt to strangle Rowan in the same jail.
The next day, though he was still off his meds and had just confessed to killing a previous cellmate, the manager of the November unit, Misty Olson, a 17-year CCA veteran, decided to place McCormick in a cell with Johnathan.
Saguaro has six cell blocks. The November unit, which held 171 inmates, is one of two blocks for what are called “special management populations.” Within the unit are two pods, Delta and Echo, where inmates are locked in their cells 23 hours a day. Inmates can be placed in these pods for various reasons, including gang affiliation, mental health needs, and disciplinary infractions. In the two lockdown units, prison staff are supposed to do security checks every 30 minutes. Each cell also has an emergency button that inmates can press to be connected, by intercom, to prison staff in a control room called the “bubble.”
By now, Johnathan’s calls to Arlene had stopped. They had always talked at least once a week, on Tuesday mornings. At first she was worried that her account had run out of money. Johnathan called collect from Saguaro, and she had to put money on a phone card to accept the charges. But she checked; her card was loaded. She thought about trying to call the prison, but whom could she call? She thought about visiting, but she was eight months pregnant and watching her two younger sons, nine-year-old Leonard and six-year-old Matua.
Johnathan’s first month in segregation hadn’t been easy. He had spent ten days on constant watch after telling prison staff that he wanted to hurt himself; he would later tell Carlos Mares, a correctional officer, that he had made the claim to get out of segregation and be moved to the medical unit. (Instead, he spent his constant watch in segregation.) On Monday, August 3, he was released from constant watch. Almost immediately, he got into a physical altercation with his cellmate, who was identified as the aggressor by correctional officer Jerime Cude. When Cude arrived, the cellmate was pummeling Johnathan with his fists; he only stopped when Cude doused him with pepper spray. Johnathan spent Tuesday and Wednesday in a cell alone.
On Thursday, August 6, 2015, at 11:51 AM, Johnathan and McCormick were placed together in cell 6 of the Delta pod.
The last prison guard to see Johnathan alive was K.C. Hathaway. The 38-year-old had worked at Sagauro for three years. He thought it strange that Johnathan and McCormick had been placed in the same cell, as Johnathan was “high strung” and McCormick quiet. He didn’t know that McCormick had previously been separated from a cellmate or that he had stopped taking his medications. When he stopped by the cell at 5:37 PM, Johnathan was lying on the top bunk. Hathaway would later tell police that Johnathan seemed “cheery” and that he “jokingly asked for a commissary form.” McCormick stood silent in the middle of the cell. Hathaway paused to ask if he was OK. McCormick nodded, and Hathaway moved along.
At 6:02 PM, according to CCA’s internal logs, McCormick pressed the cell’s emergency button. He pressed the button again at 6:08, and a third time at 6:11. The first call lasted five seconds, the second 13, and the last six. The control room should have been staffed by a correctional officer named Aisha Hobson, but that evening, she would tell police, she hadn’t received any calls from the cell — an indication she may not have been in the control room despite her claims to the contrary. In 2014, CCA admitted that it had falsified records at an Idaho prison to make it appear that vacant security posts were staffed. And last year, Mother Jones published an account by Shane Bauer of his four-month stint as a CCA corrections officer at a Louisiana prison, where he witnessed officers “routinely record security checks that do not occur.”
At 6:13 PM, McCormick pressed the emergency button a fourth time. He reached Hugo Guerrero, who had just entered the control room. He told Guerrero that his cellmate needed medical attention. Guerrero dispatched Hathaway and other guards. More than 12 minutes had passed since McCormick’s initial call. Medical staff arrived and began CPR on Johnathan, whose face had turned blue. After McCormick was handcuffed, he was asked why he hadn’t contacted them sooner. “I tried to call you,” he said.
It took the Eloy Police Department six weeks to complete its investigation into Johnathan’s death. A year later, the investigations in Hawaii were still “pending.” It is currently being “reviewed by relevant authorities,” with no date set for release.
Shelley Nobriga handles public information requests for Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety; her official title is litigation coordinator officer. A month after Johnathan’s death, I requested any internal investigatory reports or memos that Hawaii had completed regarding four previous incidents at CCA prisons that housed Hawaii inmates. Two of those incidents involved cell doors that had suddenly opened; the other two were the deaths of Clifford Medina and Bronson Nunuha. Some documents regarding the cell doors might have been purged, she told me. Or if they existed, the documents might be inside a filing cabinet in a locked room, but the only person with a key to the room was on family leave. Nobriga had no idea when he would return. And she said she couldn’t release the entire file on Medina, based in part on “government concerns and privacy issues related to witnesses,” nor anything regarding Nunuha because of a pending criminal case in Arizona against his alleged killers.
So I modified my request. After each murder, Hawaii had sent an investigatory team to Arizona. I asked for its reports. What had it concluded had happened? Who was to blame? How could such deaths be prevented in the future? Nobriga called a month later: The team hadn’t completed any reports. “I’m sure they must have done something, maybe given an oral report,” she told me. “But they didn’t write anything down.”
That left CCA. The contract between CCA and Hawaii states that after an incident, any “internal investigation report” must be released to the state. I requested any reports filed by CCA regarding the murders of Nunuha, Medina, and Johnathan. Nobriga told me that Hawaii doesn’t have any CCA reports. I asked for a list of cases settled by CCA related to Saguaro inmates. According to the contract, CCA is supposed to provide such a list to Hawaii every six months. Hawaii has no such list. I asked for staffing-pattern reports; Nobriga said they don’t keep them.
“The thing about Hawaii — it’s amazing how little they know,” says Ernest Galvan, an attorney in San Francisco who represented the families of Nunuha and Medina. “And it’s amazing how little they bother to find out. They send their contract monitors to Arizona, they go and do an inspection of the facilities, and it is just check marks on a form. Hot and cold running water, the lights are on, a really cursory inspection. You get a whole file, and there’s nothing in it.”
Even those check marks are open to question. In 2010, staff from Hawaii’s state auditor tagged along as state contract monitors conducted a quarterly inspection of Saguaro. They watched as monitors accepted the testimony of CCA staff “without verifying their statements against documentary evidence” and concluded, in a lengthy report, that Hawaii “lacked objectivity” when monitoring CCA.
The state has close ties to the company. Over the past four years, CCA has spent more than $450,000 to lobby Hawaiian politicians. One of the firm’s highest-paid lobbyists was Douglas Chin, who earned more than $100,000 for his services. In January 2015, Hawaii governor David Y. Ige appointed Chin to become the state’s attorney general.
On a cool morning in October, Arlene sits in front of the television, folding and packing clothes for her upcoming trip. Her daughter, Maisa, now 14 months old, wobbles around the living room. “She started to walk three weeks ago, and she already thinks she’s an expert,” Arlene says. On cue, her daughter takes a tumble, then giggles with her face planted in the rug.
The sky is gray, and the forecast calls for rain. Tomorrow morning, Arlene and her daughter will begin the three-flight, 14-hour journey to Saipan, arriving in time for All Saint’s Day on November 1. She hasn’t been to the island in six years; this will be her first visit to Johnathan’s grave in Saipan’s Catholic cemetery. Her oldest son, Vincent, had flown to Saipan with Johnathan’s remains earlier in the year, but Arlene hadn’t felt ready to make the trip.
Arlene has spent the past six months slowly putting her life back together. After taking some months to be home with Maisa and process her grief, she realized that she needed to get out of the house or she would spiral into a deeper depression. In April, she was hired as a part-time cashier at Rite Aid, then rapidly promoted to shift supervisor. She has made new friends among her co-workers. “I’m trying to stay busy,” she says.
At a yard sale last summer, she picked up a large picture frame, which she used to make a photo collage of her son to commemorate the anniversary of his death. In the center is a blown-up photograph of Johnathan on graduation day in Maui. He is giving a hang-loose sign with one hand and holding his certificate in the other. It is how Arlene prefers to remember her son: at peace and optimistic about the future.
In Pinal County, Arizona, McCormick has been charged with first-degree murder for Johnathan’s death. He remains in the custody of CCA at Saguaro. The prosecutor recently asked if Arlene would testify in support of the death penalty for the man who murdered her son. Arlene declined. “I don’t want to punish him any more,” she says. “He’s sick. He needs help.”
Arlene is less forgiving of the company now known as CoreCivic. She has retained an attorney, who recently filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against CCA in Arizona’s Superior Court. The complaint charges the company with gross negligence, recklessness, and deliberate indifference to Johnathan’s safety. CCA typically settles such suits out of court, and made an immediate offer. Arlene rejected it just as quickly. She wants to know what exactly happened to her son.
“I know that Johnathan’s up there, watching me,” she says. “I’m sort of the quiet and shy type. But I’m gonna show him that I’m not gonna let this go.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.