Attorney Myles Breiner says the attorney-client privilege is "sacrosanct" to the country's criminal justice system, but it's repeatedly being violated by officials at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz.
"The inmates are supposed to be able to communicate with their attorneys in an effective, confidential way," Breiner told KITV4. "That's not happening."
About 1,600 Hawaii inmates are housed at Saguaro, and Breiner represents 70 of them.
Breiner alleges the eavesdropping of inmates is the result of lawsuits filed against Corrections Corporation of America, Saguaro's parent company, after a prison riot in July of 2010 left a prison guard injured.
"Roughly two or three dozen who were involved in that lawsuit have been systematically deprived of the opportunity to speak to their attorneys in a confidential manner," said Breiner. "The result is it's having a chilling effect on inmates disclosing information."
Attorneys attempting to reach inmates at Saguaro by telephone are required to first place a request with the Department of Public Safety's Mainland Monitor's Office.
At the pre-arranged call time, the inmate is then brought into a unit manager's office, where he is allowed to converse with his attorney. However, Breiner alleges that more often than not, the unit manager stays in the room.
"Consistently, the unit manager listens to the conversation from the client's end of the conversation and takes notes," said Breiner. "Those inmates are then subsequently removed from their units and interrogated by an assistant warden or other staff regarding the nature of that confidential communication."
In an email to KITV4, a CCA spokesman denied officials at Saguaro are engaged in any wrongdoing.
"CCA is firmly committed to providing inmates access to legal counsel using methods that provide for confidential attorney-client communication," wrote Steven Owen, CCA's Senior Director of Public Affairs. "Our policies are clear, fair and straightforward."
Owens adds that inmates are not required to receive phone calls through the Mainland Monitor's Office, and attorneys are "free to confidentially communicate with their clients via legal mail or through a legal visit."
However, for many inmates, using a pay phone is not an option, since prisoners don't have the money to pay for calls.
"These guys are broke," said Breiner. "They have no money."
In the past three months, Breiner has written three letters to Hawaii Attorney General David Louie, but only recently received a response promising his allegations would be looked into.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety said that newly appointed director Ted Sakai is also aware of the situation.
"The Public Safety Department takes all allegations seriously and (Sakai) will look into it," said DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz. "If access to the courts needs to be improved for our inmates, he is committed to working on ways to streamline the process."
Breiner's allegations have also caught the eye of state Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Public Safety, Government Operations, and Military Affairs Committee. Espero is concerned about Breiner's threat to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates at Saguaro.
"These lawsuits can cost the state a lot of money, and that's the last thing we want," said Espero. "Hopefully, the AG and the Public Safety Department will work with Mr. Breiner and make sure these allegations, if they are true, do not happen again."
The Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has also addressed Breiner's allegations, calling it further proof of the state's failed experiment to use private, for-profit prisons.
"Hawaii continues to pay a steep price for putting prisoners in private, for-profit prisons - two murders, allegations of widespread beatings and assaults," said ACLU Hawaii Executive Director Vanessa Chong. "Now prison officials are snooping on communications between prisoners and their lawyers - communications which are protected by the Constitution."
Espero said he expects Hawaii's attorney general to address Breiner's allegations as soon as possible.
"I at the very least expect him to put something in writing to the warden, and then CC it to the executives of CCA," said Espero. "These are serious allegations that Mr. Breiner has conveyed to us."