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House committee grills Le’i over using firemen as prison guards

DPS officials after the House Public Safety hearing last week, where issues at TCF and the Fire Division were discussed.  [photo by AF]
Faipule say “not right”

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Firemen who were assigned to guard inmates at the Territorial Correction Facility (TCF) have been returned to their regular jobs, according to Police Commissioner Le’i Sonny Thompson during a hearing with the House Public Safety committee last week.

Rep. Manumaua W. Wilson, chaired the hearing, with several representatives in attendance.

Fofo Faipule, Fagaoatua Dorian Salavea requested the hearing with the Police Commissioner to explain why the Fire Division was removed from the Leone Substation and why some firemen were assigned to guard the two inmates who escaped twice from prison this year. He asked Police Commissioner Le’i to explain the reasons behind these decisions.

In his response, Le’i first apologized to the committee for what was published in the newspaper about this issue, saying that his decision to assign firemen to guard the two inmates was a result of a discussion with TCF Warden, Tauese Va’aomala Sunia, and was due to the fact that there is a need for additional manpower at TCF.

“There are a lot of issues at TCF that DPS needs to address, and one of these issues is the shortage of prison guards and the need to prevent inmates from continuing to escape from confinement,” Le’i said.

And although the new prison facility is equipped with a security camera system inside, Le’i told the committee that this does not stop inmates from escaping.

“The best way to stop inmates from escaping is to have prison guards present inside the prison 24/ 7. Not only to watch them but also to monitor all of their actions, and that is the main reason why I asked the Fire Chief to allow some of his firemen to help with the situation at the TCF,” Le’i said.

The firemen who were assigned to guard the inmates were instructed to look after these particular inmates only. According to Le’i they were not asked to perform any other duties of a police officer nor to do anything that they were not trained to do — they were asked to just be present and look after the inmates. If anything happened such as inmates trying to escape again or inmates fighting, the firemen were told to contact the TCF main office immediately.

“I understand that these firemen were not trained to guard prisoners, nor can they deal with any types of situations happening at TCF. They have their own academy and training pertaining to their field, but my hat goes off to the Chief of Fire Division especially to those firemen who were assigned to do the task,” the Commissioner said.

On the issue of removing the firemen and the fire truck from the Leone Substation, Le’i defended his decision, saying that the fire truck was taken to the mechanic shop for repairs, and it and the firemen are now back at the Leone Substation to continue their daily schedule.

Vice Speaker, Rep. Fetu Fetui Jr referring to the shortage of guards at TCF, told Le’i that he thanked God that nothing has happened at TCF between inmates and police officers, and who knows, maybe it was the work of the Holy Spirit inside the hearts of the inmates, which prevents anything bad from happening to any police officers at TCF.

As a former cop, Fetu said that he understands the need for more prison guards at TCF because the last 12 of his 20 years of service with DPS were at the TCF.

“I have been at TCF and I know exactly what you’re taking about Mr. Commissioner. I thank you for looking at every side to find ways to solve the situation at TCF, but to me as a representative, that does not excuse you for doing what you did,” Fetu said.

Fetu said his only concern was that these firemen were trained to be firemen and they have to perform work as firemen, not guard prisoners.

“What happens if these inmates manage to escape again under the watch of these firemen? What happens if there is a big fight amongst the inmates inside the prison, or if prisoners start attacking the guards and escape? Who is responsible for that? Who is going to take the blame and what is the government going to say if the lives of these firemen are affected?” Fetu asked Le’i.

Fetu told Le’i that he heard that one of the firemen carries a pocketknife for his protection every time he’s at the TCF, and it was something that really bothered him.

Several lawmakers voiced the same issue. Although they thanked Le’i for the hard work, they also said that his decision to assign firemen to guard inmates was not right, and there are other options DPS should consider instead of using firemen as prison guards.