An investigation into Hawaii’s practice of sending prisoners to the mainland by Vice and the Nation Institute contains the heartbreaking story of a young man who would probably still be alive today if not for cannabis prohibition.
Johnathan Namauleg first got into trouble with the law after he lit a hut on fire at the local canoe club in Maui, Hawaii. (Nobody was hurt.) Eighteen-years-old at the time, Namauleg read at the first-grade level. He was diagnosed with ADHD and borderline intellectual functioning. His cognitive disability prompted the judge to reduce his charge and give him five years of probation for third-degree arson, instead of the possibility of a 10-year sentence for second-degree arson.
Before his legal troubles, Namauleg had used cannabis to treat his ADHD. Pharmaceuticals made him nauseous and marijuana relieved his symptoms without the side effects. “He loved to smoke weed,” Namauleg’s mother Arlene told Vice. “And when he was high, he became just like when he drank his medication. His mind stopped moving so fast. He could focus.”
But his probation required him to submit to random drug tests. Namauleg was doing well — graduating high school, snagging his first job, and talking about going to college. But he started smoking pot again. Though his mother understood that the drug helped his ADHD symptoms, the legal system did not. After missing a drug test, a judge revoked his probation due to his “drug problem” and sentenced him to five years behind bars. From Vice:
“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.”
Namauleg is one of many inmates in Hawaii who get sent to prisons on the mainland, a practice that burdens families of inmates who must spend thousands of dollars to see their loved ones. Many states have contracts with private-prison companies to manage overcrowding. The Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz. (where Namauleg lost his life) is managed by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) through a state contract. About 7,200 prisoners are housed this way, reports The Marshall Project, and as the Vice/Nation story shows, oversight into these facilities is sorely lacking.
The beginnings of of the Hawaii-CCA relationship can partly be traced back to the state’s methamphetamine epidemic that doubled the prison population over a decade. Despite the well-documented toll that criminalizing drug use produces, Hawaii started sending prisoners to the mainland.
Perhaps if weed were legal, Namauleg wouldn’t have ended up back behind bars. It’s also fair to argue that he may still be alive if he had not been housed in a private prison. A 2016 review of private prisons contracted with the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that they have “more safety and security incidents per capita” than facilities managed by the government. The review led to a Justice Department memo announcing the phase-out of private prisons. Last month, attorney general Jeff Sessions rescinded the memo.
Namauleg died after being placed in a cell with an inmate who was in prison for murder and had other well-documented homicidal tendencies. His cellmate has been charged with first-degree murder in his death.