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Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Prison overcrowding
problem won’t go away

Bullet The issue: Governor Cayetano has decided against trying to build a new prison.

Bullet Our view: Eventually the state must find other ways to deal with the problem of overcrowded prisons than sending inmates to the mainland.

GOVERNOR Cayetano, who has wrestled unsuccessfully with the problem of a new prison for six years, has decided against pursuing the issue. The subject will probably be raised anyway in the new legislative session. But without the governor's support, it's unlikely that another prison will be built.

In the past, Cayetano has advocated a privately operated prison, arguing that a publicly operated facility would be prohibitively expensive and too difficult to manage because of union contract provisions and civil service rules. Last year the Legislature passed a bill for private operation, but the governor vetoed it, objecting to provisions that would have given the United Public Workers union an unfair advantage in bidding for the contract.

Rather than try for passage of a bill without the objectionable provisions, Cayetano has now given up. Ted Sakai, director of the Department of Public Safety, said his department is no longer reviewing potential prison sites or soliciting proposals from private developers.

Sakai said the governor recognizes that the system needs more bed space, "but he looked at the amount of capital resources we have and felt that there were better ways to invest it."

This brings Cayetano back to his position at the start of his administration in 1994, when he scrapped plans of the Waihee administration for a new prison and said he would prefer to put the state's limited resources into education.

Later the governor decided that a new prison was needed after all, but retreated in the face of opposition from residents of Kau and other problems with proposed Big Island sites. Since then the state has been content to continue sending inmates to mainland prisons. This costs less than providing space to house them here -- currently $20 million a year -- but the money is spent elsewhere and is a net loss to the Hawaii economy.

Despite Cayetano's decision to abandon efforts to build a new prison, the administration is seeking funding for more modest efforts. These include $4 million for a transitional housing facility for 150 women who are nearing release from prison; $12 million to add 100 medium-security beds and more space for programs at the Maui Community Correctional center; $6.5 million to lease space at the soon-to-be-completed federal detention center; and $4.4 million for drug treatment for offenders who are not in prison.

Such measures may be all that the state is going to accomplish to deal with inmate overcrowding and other prison problems, but they are worthy of support. Some legislators would like to go farther -- and there is a need to deal more effectively with the problem. But conflicting demands on the state's resources and the governor's retreat make it unlikely that more ambitious projects will be achieved.

There is no use trying to ignore prison issues, even though virtually everyone would prefer to spend the state's money elsewhere. As long as the courts convict people and sentence them to prison, the state must make provision to house them -- and in a reasonably humane manner. The governor, with only two years left in his term, has chosen to back off. Eventually, however, the state will have to come to grips with the overcrowding problem.

Falun Gong meeting

Bullet The issue: The religious/meditation group Falun Gong, which is banned in China, held a conference Sunday in Hong Kong.

Bullet Our view: The question is how long Hong Kong can hold out against mainland Chinese pressure to curtail freedom of speech and assembly.

DEFYING Beijing's displeasure, more than 1,000 members of the Falun Gong religious/meditation group held a conference in Hong Kong Sunday. The conference was a testament to the fact that Hong Kong respects freedom of expression to a degree unknown in mainland China.

Falun Gong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung said about 1,200 followers attended Sunday's gathering in a Hong Kong City Hall auditorium. The group said the presence of 700 overseas followers from 23 countries demonstrated its strong appeal.

However, there were limits to the freedom granted to the sect by Hong Kong authorities. Immigration officers barred 13 Falun Gong practitioners from entering the territory. Officials said the members were turned away because of visa problems and not their Falun Gong affiliation.

Meeting organizers had planned to display photographs that purportedly document torture of Falun Gong members on the mainland, but were warned off by city officials. A city spokeswoman said showing the photos had not been approved when Falun Gong rented the hall and was not relevant to the group's avowed purpose of letting members share their experiences.

This seemed to be a thinly veiled attempt to mollify Beijing by suppressing the most damning evidence of Chinese repression.

Nevertheless, Falun Gong is legal in Hong Kong, and organizers took advantage of the territory's guarantee of freedom of speech to meet there. The government deserves credit for allowing the meeting and even letting the group use a city facility.

In the wake of the Hong Kong meeting, the Chinese government said it has punished 242 organizers of Falun Gong and sent an undisclosed number to labor camps. The distinction between those punished and those sent to the camps wasn't clear. A Hong Kong-based civil rights group says at least 10,000 Falun Gong members are being held in Chinese labor camps.

The group insists it has no political motives, but China has made it a political issue by trying to crush it by force. Falun Gong is banned in China as a public menace and threat to party rule.

The conference showed that Hong Kong is still upholding freedom of speech and assembly with only minor concessions to China. The question is how long Hong Kong will hold out against Chinese pressure.

Published by Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership

Rupert E. Phillips, CEO

John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, Acting Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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