The year at the Department of Corrections included a multitude of issues from inmates being mistakenly released from custody to a shift in leadership and complaints coming from its own staff.
"The officers are doing a really good job despite the limited resources they have," and they are committed to protecting the community, said Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero following her first visit to the prison in January as Guam's governor.
Her newly appointed Director Samantha Brennan and Deputy Director Joey Terlaje led the prison.
Prison leaders were brought before senators multiple times this year to answer concerns.
During a hearing at the Guam Congress Building in June, Warden Alan Borja admitted to lawmakers that the staffing shortage at DOC is scary and that the perimeter is vulnerable.
"Let's face it – not too many people want to walk (in) our shoes. That's why you have a lot of officers walking out on us," said Borja.
That same month, results of a mental health evaluation for Brennan were leaked. The report recommended her for the job but also cautioned she might not do well under certain stressful situations. Senators gave her a unanimous approval.
The second half of the year led to the sudden resignation in September of DOC Deputy Terlaje.
Terlaje was never charged but an FBI agent named him in a federal court hearing for allegedly having had some association with indicted Yona Mayor Jesse Mendiola Blas. The Guam Police Department's Joe Carbullido was tapped to serve as acting deputy.
DOC leadership again went before lawmakers in October for an oversight hearing led by Vice Speaker Telena Nelson.
The oversight hearing in part was in response to four erroneous prison releases reported this year. Brennan admitted to senators during the hearing that two of the incidents were a result of human error and the officers involved were given a warning.
On the night of the oversight hearing, two inmates escaped from DOC's halfway house.
Inmates Johnnie Gene Del Rosario, 44, and Johnny Atalig, 44, were taken back into custody the following morning after the warden received a call that the two men wanted to surrender. Warden Borja and at least four corrections officers were subsequently placed on administrative leave with pay as authorities investigated the escape.
During the challenging times at DOC, the governor expressed her continued confidence in its leadership.
"Our director has demonstrated in my mind her ability to stabilize things and to control things," said the governor in response to the escape and the internal investigations linked to the incident.
Borja has since been temporarily assigned to the Department of Parks and Recreation while he is being investigated internally at the prison.
In November, prison leaders were called back to answer lawmakers’ questions. The hearing was held the same time an anonymous letter was made public. It said the prison's director and acting deputy director had created a hostile work environment.
"The reasons behind this hostility, is Director Brennan has erected a wall and has forced the personnel to choose sides. Her side or the warden's side. It is very clear that she has no trust to any of the employees of this Department other than a certain few which are advising her," the letter said. Vice Speaker Nelson read the letter at the start of the second oversight hearing.
"In all honesty, there are some officers who refuse to speak to me because of that fear of retaliation," Brennan said in response to senators' concerns. "I do have an open-door policy, so they can come talk to me, but I also told them to go through the chain of command."
Days later, a second anonymous letter supposedly from “managers and subordinates of the Department of Corrections” claimed there has been an increased fear of retribution as well as frustration that the first letter was ignored.
“Now we are all in fear because Director Brennan is aggressively investigating who wrote the letter so she can take action on that individual or individuals responsible for exposing her poor management skills instead of addressing the concerns,” the letter writers added.
The letters forced Gov. Leon Guerrero to step in and speak behind closed doors with DOC officers.
On Nov. 12, close to 50 officers at DOC spent more than two hours venting their frustration and concerns about the work conditions at the prison in the meeting with the governor.
The Guam Federation of Teachers decided to withdraw its labor complaints that followed at local and federal agencies against the prison, following a meeting with the governor and a number of promises to improve working conditions at DOC.
On Nov. 19, DOC detainee Patrick Hernandez escaped from the Hagåtña Detention Facility's perimeter gates that were open for a food delivery. He was captured hours later near the Maina Catholic Church.
An internal memo issued to DOC personnel that same month outlined operational changes to improve the working conditions and address some of the concerns raised by corrections officers. The memo stated acting deputy Carbullido will be oversee the department’s operations, while the director's immediate focus was to resolve problems with personnel and the payment of overtime.
A couple of days later, Brennan quit her position as the prison's director.
"It has been my honor to work alongside many outstanding employees who are truly dedicated public servants. These unsung officers, administrative and support staff report for duty day in and day out and perform to the highest standards of professionalism and integrity," Brennan wrote.
Frank Ishizaki, a former FBI agent, former Guam Police Department chief and former Guam Homeland Security adviser, has since been selected to fill the position.
Ishizaki immediately sent letters to 28 potential Department of Corrections officer recruits calling it a “fast track” of the largest recruitment of corrections officers in recent history.
2019 was also the year most of the co-defendants in an elaborate scheme to smuggle drugs and contraband into the prison pleaded guilty in the Superior Court of Guam. Among the defendants was the prison's former Internal Affairs head, Jeffrey Limo.
“I take full responsibility for it,” said Limo. “I apologize to the people of Guam that I’ve sworn to protect for the last 28 years and, again, it is at no fault of anybody but myself.”
Most of the officers accused in the case, which unfolded in 2017, accepted plea deals with the government that did not include prison time.