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Saturday, April 17, 1999



Public Safety chief
backs governor on
pardoning of
isle inmates

Ted Sakai says early releases would
work if inmates aren't dangerous

By Mike Yuen
Star-Bulletin

Tapa

Legislature '99 State Public Safety Director Ted Sakai says he backs Gov. Ben Cayetano, who has vowed to pardon inmates if the Legislature refuses to appropriate $130 million to fund a 2,300-bed, medium-security prison on the Big Island to alleviate prison overcrowding.

Such early releases of prisoners would work, Sakai said yesterday, but only if the public isn't put in jeopardy.

Sakai's comments came after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-0 to recommend that he be confirmed by the full Senate.

Four months ago, Cayetano selected Sakai to be the new Public Safety chief and head a state prison system marred by overcrowding, overtime abuse and accusations of brutality by correctional officers.

"If (any prisoner) is dangerous, obviously I'm going to tell the governor we shouldn't release that person," said Sakai, who has been an administrator in the department for nearly 20 years.

Cayetano's remarks on Thursday, which many have viewed as a threat, reflect the governor's belief that the state needs to start moving quickly to get a new prison built soon, Sakai added.

"I think the governor is very, very concerned about the continued overcrowding in our correctional system. The governor is very concerned that if we don't start making progress with building a new prison, we will soon reach a crisis stage," Sakai said.

Currently, there are 4,800 Hawaii inmates, with about 25 percent incarcerated on the mainland.

The state's prison system, which has a maximum capacity of 3,300, now has 3,600.

"All of our new space is minimum-security space. The problem is medium security," Sakai said.

House and Senate lawmakers did not put the new prison in their proposed budgets because they fear the project -- which would be built near the Kulani correctional facility -- would mean the state would have to carry a significantly larger debt service.

Moreover, some legislators are exploring the possibility of having a privately built correctional facility constructed near Hilo, which supposedly would be cheaper than a state-funded prison.

Last year, Cayetano reversed himself and said a privately funded prison would cost more than one built by the state.

The approximately 40 people who offered written or verbal testimony at Sakai's confirmation hearing were unanimous in praising him.

"I believe the next four years will be a critical time for the department, especially as regards correctional facilities," Sakai said.

"We must make essential improvements in management and programming before we open the proposed 2,300-bed prison."

Sakai told the Judiciary panel the institutional culture that permeates the Halawa Correctional Facility, which houses medium- and high-security prisoners, "needs a major overhaul."

But, he added, he has not uncovered any evidence to support claims that there are 12 to 14 rogue prison guards who have repeatedly abused inmates.

Sakai also said he is working with union leaders to implement a new scheduling plan aimed at cutting down on unnecessary overtime for prison guards and to put in place a policy to prevent nepotism in the hiring and promotion of the department's employees.



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