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"Deplorable conditions" at TCF on hold until Fono reconvenes in July

Senator Malaepule Saite Moliga

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — After the “deplorable conditions” in the local prison at Tafuna were revealed and discussed during Senate regular sessions and hearings with members demanding immediate action by government, it looks like the matter has been put on the back burner until the Fono reconvenes in July.

In a hearing of the Senate Public Safety/Homeland Security Committee held on the day before the 2nd Special Session of the 38th Legislature officially ended on April 4th, the Department of Corrections Director Tauanu’u Semo Tauanu’u, Deputy Director Filomena Leituala and Attorney General Fainu’ulelei Falefatu Alailima-Utu testified and confirmed the gloomy and potentially life-threatening state of the prison.

Senators were stunned with revelations of what was happening within the walls of the prison as the TCF director responded to members’ questions.

Committee member Senator Malaepule Saite Moliga, a former TCF Warden did not mince words in his description of the TCF premises.

“The buildings where the inmates are confined are not fit for human habitation,” Malaepule said bluntly. “That’s how bad the condition of those buildings has deteriorated. But it wasn’t like that before. I know because I was the warden for seven years when Senate President Tuaolo was Police Commissioner.

“Last week when we visited those buildings, we could hardly breathe because of the unpleasant smell and you could tell at first glance, how unsanitary the condition of the buildings was. They have been neglected by government for far too long and something must be done now to solve this problem!”

The former TCF warden was also direct in his criticism of how the prison is run.

“This is the only prison in the world where I have observed inmates whose misdemeanor cases are pending, mingling and confined together with convicted murderers and convicted drug dealers,” Malaepule declared. “This never happened during my time as warden. The inmates were confined according to the seriousness of the crimes for which they were convicted.

“The inmates are also now cooking their meals inside their cells! Can you imagine what would happen if a fire broke out late at night and no one can escape because they're locked inside? Who would be blamed for this tragedy if, God forbid, it happened?

“The government of American Samoa of course. The government is responsible for everyone confined at the TCF.

“I urge this chamber to request the governor to make this matter a priority and do something to resolve these problems as soon as possible, before someone gets hurt.”

Committee chairman Olo Uluao Letuli explained that the root of the problem was the overcrowding of limited space, which was due to the large number of inmates whose cases were pending, some since 2020.

AG Fainu’ulelei in response explained that the huge backlog of pending cases had stemmed from COVID-19 restrictions, which began in March 2020 until they were lifted in the middle of 2022.

At the end of the hearing, senators unanimously agreed that a Senate Resolution should be prepared and submitted to governor urging him to prioritize the resolving of this problem at the prison immediately.

The Special Session ended the following day and the Fono will reconvene in July.

Samoa News this week, followed up on the matter with Senator Olo who stated that the matter has been referred to the Senate Legal Counsel who is responsible for writing up the resolution.

Olo stated that there had not been enough time to put together the resolution and have it passed before the end of the Special Session.

He said unless the governor calls for another special session before July, the matter will have to be put on hold until the Fono reconvenes in the second week of July.

In the meantime, there is still a question of exactly how many inmates are currently housed at the TCF facility, including if any ‘repairs’ will be made in the interim to relieve the unsanitary conditions that have been identified.