HONOLULU (AP) — A Hawaii prison gang formed out of a need for inmate protection evolved into a violent organization whose members are "kings of their castle," a federal prosecutor told a jury Wednesday at the start of a racketeering trial for a former prison guard and an inmate.
The "USO Family" formed in the 1990s when Hawaii started sending its inmates to mainland prisons because of overcrowding and budget constraints, Assistant U.S Attorney Jill Otake said. At prisons in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi, "they found themselves alone and subject to attack and extortion."
But what started out as a small group of Samoans using "uso," the Samoan word for brother, grew into a big multi-state organization that included any Hawaii inmate, regardless of ethnicity, Otake explained.
"They went from victims to victimizers," she said, describing how members carried out acts of bribery, extortion, drug-smuggling and even tax fraud, also in Hawaii prisons where they no longer needed protection from mainland prison gangs.
Former Halawa Correctional Facility guard Feso Malufau is accused of taking bribes to smuggle drugs into the Oahu prison. Tineimalo Adkins is accused of leading a brutal gang assault on a fellow Halawa inmate.
They are the last of 18 men indicted on racketeering-related charges last year who haven't pleaded guilty.
Malufau's defense attorney, Barry Edwards, said in his opening statement that the gang framed his client. "This is a very professional framing," Edwards said, noting that Malufau stopped working at the prison in 2011, while the attack his co-defendant is accused of leading happened in 2013.
"He's gone from Halawa so the leaders of the USO gang want to not interrupt the flow of the goods they're getting," Edwards said. "So why not organize a story which can be supported by various pieces of information which points the finger on a guard who's gone?" Malufau was an ideal choice to frame partly because he's Samoan and had made various complaints at the prison, his attorney said.
Otake said Malufau had motive because of financial problems. She said evidence and testimony during the trial will show how he smuggled drugs into the prison by hiding them in the bottom of plate lunch containers or his cooler and in other ways.
The people who will testify against Adkins aren't credible, said his defense attorney, Marcus Sierra. "Not a single credible witness will come before you to tell you my client was involved in this assault," he said. "The people who did participate have pleaded guilty."
Adkins was among a group of co-defendants in the case who waged a four-day hunger strike earlier this year to protest conditions at the Honolulu Federal Detention Center, provoked by discovering maggots in their cereal. A facility spokesman said at the time allegations of insects in food were unfounded.
Adkins' complaints included being denied medical attention for an eye cyst and access to an imam so he can practice his Muslim faith.
The prosecution's first witness Wednesday, state Department of Public Safety internal affairs investigator Lawrence Myers, said USO Family started with about a dozen members and has grown to at least 1,000. He described gang functions including recruits being referred to as "21s" — signifying the letter "U'' being the 21st letter of the alphabet — and membership contracts written in blood.
"Blood in, blood out," Myers said. "I'm coming in and I'm giving you my blood and the only way out is to bleed."
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