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Convicted escapee tells horrific tale of alleged mistreatment at TCF

Inmate Joe Togitogi [SN file photo]
Acting Associate Judge Patea urges the executive branch to look into the claims

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Police brutality and inhumane treatment inside the prison walls are some of the reasons why prisoners escape from the Territorial Correctional Facility (TCF) in Tafuna. These were the words of inmate Joe Togitogi when he appeared before Acting Associate Justice Elvis P. Patea for sentencing yesterday morning.

Togitogi spent nearly 10 minutes sharing with the court, his story about the way prison guards treat inmates — including himself — everyday. According to Togitogi, the TCF guards beat the inmates and when the prisoners get injured, the guards don’t take them to the hospital for treatment.

Togitogi alleges the guards deny the inmates a chance to see their families during weekend visitations, to avoid the family members from knowing what’s going on at TCF. Before the court rendered its sentence for Togitogi, who is convicted of escape from confinement, he was given the chance to make a statement. Togitogi told Patea he didn’t have an apology, but he did want to speak about the mistreatment of inmates by the guards.

“The mistreatment of inmates inside TCF is a growing problem right now and that’s the reason why I continued to escape, because I wanted to inform my parents of what’s happening to me while I’m serving time in prison,” Togitogi said.

“I was beaten up badly by some prison guards, and they didn’t take me to the hospital for treatment. They don’t provide soap for us, the food is really bad, they allow three inmates to share a tin of fish (pilikaki), and we have to look for rice to eat every meal.”

He continued, “We don’t have any human rights, they just treat us like slaves. That’s the reason why I left the prison so many times, because I wanted to get some food for us.”

“I was a very handsome young man before I was taken to prison a few years ago, but look at me right now, I’m ugly because I’ve been beaten up badly so many times by the prison guards. I lost a few teeth during the last beating, last month.”

According to Togitogi, after he was beaten up last month, “I told the prison guards that I wanted to speak to my attorney but they stopped me. And when I escaped from prison, I went straight home, but I couldn’t even go inside my house because it was surrounded by police officers. They don’t want me to go home and explain to my family how they treat me.”

Togitogi told the judge, “I noted down in my notebook that for 143 days I did not take a shower, because I was locked inside the cell without food or drink. I humbly ask your honor to please consider my pleas and do something to stop the mistreating of inmates at the TCF.”

In closing, Togitogi did offer an apology for what he did and asked the court to review his statements and take action against the prison guards who are behind the alleged criminal acts.

When it was his turn to speak, Prosecutor Woodrow Pengelly reminded the court about the recommendation in the plea agreement with Togitogi which was filed last November, where the government recommended to sentence Togitogi to a jail term of 3 years, to be served consecutive to any sentences he’s already serving.

“The defendant is not new to the court, this is not the first time he has escaped from confinement, and now he’s here with a story to the court as an excuse for his actions. He was sent to prison because of his actions, not for his own convenience,” Pengelly said.

He said Togitogi escaped from prison while serving a sentence for assaulting another man. Earlier this year, the defendant allegedly escaped from prison twice and he has a pending new criminal case in the District Court, charging him with escape and burglary.

Pengelly asked the court to follow the recommendation in the plea agreement that he serves 3 years for escape.

Before the court rendered its decision, Patea asked Pengelly whether Togitogi’s complaint has been made known to the government.

“Do you know if this is the only the defendant or are there other inmates involved in this alleged mistreatment?” Patea asked.

Pengelly responded, “I’m not sure.”

Patea said based on everything Togitogi shared, he sees no reason to deviate from the recommendation that both sides agreed to, and Togitogi is therefore sentenced to 3 years at TCF.

The sentence will run consecutive to any other sentences he’s already serving.

Patea however pointed out, “The conditions mentioned by the prisoner this morning is a concern to the court. The Judiciary is not in the business of looking into and imposing any kind of conditions relating to the operations of the correctional facility; that is up to the Executive Branch,” adding that if the matter is presented in the form of a lawsuit to the court, then the Judiciary will step in.

“... but for now, Togitogi’s statement has not fallen on deaf ears. The court is going to order that the transcript of the defendant’s proceedings be prepared by the court, certified, and forwarded to the AG and the legal counsel of American Samoa.

“It is our hope that the Executive Branch of the Government will act on this complaint and do something about it,” Patea concluded.