A 31-year-old prison guard made his initial appearance in U.S. District Court Monday after a federal grand jury indicted him last week for two counts of distributing methamphetamine, conspiring to distribute and possess the drug with the intent to distribute methamphetamine and bribery.
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In a brief appearance before magistrate Barry Kurren, James "Kimo" Sanders of Kailua pleaded not guilty to all charges. He was released to the custody of his grandmother after posting a $50,000 signature bond. As part of his release, Sanders cannot work at any prison facility and must wear a GPS tracking device.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Nammar, Sanders used his position as an adult corrections officer to smuggle 55 grams or more of meth, or ice, into the prison from October through Nov. 29 of last year. Nammar said some of the smuggling occurred in the entrance of the prison where visitors are screened.
The investigation into Sanders' activities at Halawa involved the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Honolulu Police Department, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Public Safety.
DPS Director Ted Sakai issued a written statement about Sanders' arrest, saying his department is working with investigators to weed out corrupt employees from the prison system.
"It is our top priority to bring the individuals who commit these crimes to justice," said Sakai. "The people who facilitate illegal acts in our prisons do a disservice to the rest of our employees, the majority whom are good, hardworking people."
Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said Sanders' arrest validates what he has heard from others about the availability of illicit drugs in Hawaii prisons.
"I have had reports from inmates who had been released, from family members of inmates, and we know that this is certainly going on," said Espero. "So it is good that individuals are being indicted."
Adult corrections officers in Hawaii are subject to random drug-testing, as well as testing with cause if there is suspicion of drug use. DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz says any ACO who tests positive is referred to a substance abuse professional to undergo mandatory treatment. An ACO that tests positive for drug use a second time is terminated immediately.
It's not known if Sanders ever tested positive for illegal drug use in his role as an ACO at Halawa, but Espero said if the charges are true, he should be made an example of.
"Certainly, all individuals who are in this position need to be dealt with harshly because our prison system is a place where we want to try to rehabilitate inmates as well, and with this type of activity going on, it completely contradicts and makes that effort meaningless or useless," said Espero.
A trial date for Sanders has been set for March 18 before Senior United States District Judge Helen Gillmor. If he's found guilty of the conspiracy or distribution charges, Sanders could receive life in prison.
Sanders has a prior conviction for harassment in 2005, a petty misdemeanor for which he was fined $100.