Sunday, September 28, 2003

Iron bars imprison two inmates in each cell in the maximum control holding unit at the Oahu Community Correctional Center. The Kalihi facility, built on the site of the old Oahu Prison, was designed to handle a community corrections program without cells, and because of overcrowding, evolved into the state's largest jail.

Hawaii prison
overcrowding prompts
Lingle to consider
new options

The governor wants any
new prison to have an
in-house drug treatment center

Gov. Linda Lingle, who promised during her campaign to build two new prisons, has launched a complete review of Hawaii's four jails and four prisons.

State of Hawaii All four of the state's jails, including the bulging Oahu Community Correctional Center with more than 1,400 men and women inmates, need to be replaced, according to Lingle.

"They are not places we would want to invest more money. They are just not functional; they were built for a much smaller prison population, and I don't think they were built with any prison expertise," Lingle said in an interview Friday.

Francis Sequeira, OCCC acting warden, said that the Kalihi facility, built on the site of the old Oahu Prison, was designed to handle a community corrections program without cells, and because of overcrowding, evolved into the state's largest jail. It holds pretrial detainees, persons arrested who either can't make bail or are being held without bail until their trials.

More than 120 women prisoners are pushed into halls, lacking air conditioning, with bunk beds arranged into six-woman modules. There is no separation between the beds and it is common for fights to break out in the hot afternoon, according to inmates.

The problem of when, where and how to build a prison haunted the Cayetano administration during its eight-year run, as the former governor was forced to send Hawaii inmates to mainland prisons after failing to get agreement on a variety of prison construction plans.

Topped with razor wire, Oahu Community Correctional Center holds 1,400 pretrial detainees -- people still presumed innocent of the charges against them.

After first saying he preferred treatment to prisons, Cayetano struggled with Hawaii's soaring prison population and a federal court consent decree forcing him to limit the number of prisoners he could keep in Hawaii's prisons.

As he ended his final term last December, Cayetano tried to push through a privately built prison to be constructed at Halawa near the medium- and high-security prisons. But high construction costs forced him to turn the problem over to Lingle.

Lingle said she is likely to recommend that the Legislature appropriate money for one new prison facility and start on replacing the Oahu and neighbor island jails.

"You can expect there will be proposals to replace some of the existing jail facilities as well as a new prison," she said.

But Lingle cautioned that a new prison must have a built-in drug treatment component.

"We don't think it makes much sense to build another prison that doesn't have substantial treatment facilities," Lingle said.

How the administration will connect the dots in their emerging prison plan is the responsibility of the new director of public safety, John Peyton, a former career federal attorney.

Watching how well the new administration does is the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit that forced the state to lower the prison population.

"The state was very slow into coming into compliance," said Vanessa Chong, Hawaii ACLU executive director.

By 1989, the state had stopped making progress, Chong said, and a special master was appointed by the court to force Hawaii to improve prison conditions. By 1996, the state and the ACLU agreed that the state was complying with the federal decree, the prisons were being run properly and the court order was dropped.

Now, Chong said, the state's problems appear to be returning.

"Until the state gets a handle on managing the inmate population, it will continue to have problems," Chong warned.

"Overcrowding impacts every part of the system and the system breaks down because you have too many people crammed into too small a space," Chong said.

But the ACLU is not considering another lawsuit, saying it wants to give the new director and governor a chance.

"The director is going to need much more than his own initiative, skill and motivation because for the past two decades, the state has not been able to successfully address the question of overcrowding," Chong said.

The safety valve for overcrowding today, Peyton said, is to move prisoners to the mainland. Right now there are nearly 1,200 Hawaii inmates in mainland prisons.

"If we didn't have the mainland and also the federal detention center, we would have a very serious problem," Peyton said.

The new emphasis on the links between drug addiction and crime could mean that Hawaii's prison system could become even more crowded.

"It may well be that the best solution is incarceration and treatment simultaneously. If the courts believe that and the Legislature funds drug treatment to a higher level, then there is a distinct possibility that you will get a higher prison population," Peyton speculated.

How the Legislature reacts to Lingle's new calls for prison construction is another unknown. Last year, the Legislature approved a call for a new prison in Halawa, but Lingle vetoed it, saying the administration already had the authority to build, but it wanted to restudy the situation.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua) is planning to tour both OCCC and the 2-year old federal detention center on Wednesday.

"I am curious about the federal prison. It is supposed to be a very efficient design. I want to see if it works and it is safe for the public and those incarcerated," Hanabusa said.

Peyton has already floated a proposal to rebuild the Maui Community Correctional Facility, which as of last year was functioning with 349 inmates in a facility designed for 300.

There has also been discussion by the Lingle administration that the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands would be able to provide Big Island land for a new prison.

"If DHHL takes on that kind of responsibility and part of the structure incorporates native Hawaiian traditional healing practices, it would be something for us to look at," Hanabusa said.

Hanabusa added that Hawaiian groups have already lobbied her, saying that Hawaiian inmates now on the mainland should be brought back to Hawaii, because they have a better chance of rehabilitation.

What Hanabusa said she doesn't want is for the state to be sued again and then ordered to comply.

"I don't want the federal court to think we show no inclination to addressing this problem.

"The job Mr. Peyton has is to sell the governor that he has a viable plan, and then, we in the Legislature have to realize the urgency of it," Hanabusa said.


History of overcrowding

Overcrowding and changing community attitudes have forced the state's prison system to continually readjust. Here's a look at the prison system over the last two decades:


>> September 1984: ACLU sues the state, citing overcrowding and inadequate safety and programs.

>> June 1985: State officials entered a consent decree, agreeing to set prison population limits and make sweeping facility and program improvements at Oahu Community Correctional Center and the women's prison.

>> December 1995: Hawaii starts a program of transferring inmates to mainland prisons in Texas, Minnesota, Oklahoma.

>> August 1996: Gov. Ben Cayetano says the state can add hundreds of prison beds by using tent-like sprung shelters that cost $150,000 each to confine as many as 40 inmates each.

>> January 1998: Cayetano proposes that the state in partnership with a private firm build a prison, with 1,000 to 1,500 beds.

>> September 1999: Federal court finds that Hawaii prisons are in substantial compliance and lifts consent decree governing state prisons.

>> December 1999: Cayetano's prison plans are rejected by the state Legislature, and he proposes that the state build, lease or buy a prison on the mainland to provide a permanent out-of-state location for Hawaii inmates.

>> January 2002: The state is considering a privately run Hilo rehabilitation facility for up to 1,000 inmates.

>> April 2002: State officials are exploring building a new 1,100-bed prison in Halawa Valley next to the existing 1,100-bed prison.

>> June 2002: Candidate for governor Linda Lingle opposes sending inmates to the mainland, promises voters that she would build two privately financed, 500-bed drug treatment correctional facilities in Hawaii.

>> November 2002: Cayetano halts prison plans when an unexpected $7 million to $8 million added cost to upgrade the sewage system at the proposed Halawa prison complex stops the deal with the unidentified developer.

"I told Gov. (Linda) Lingle I'm handing it off to her," Cayetano says.

>> December 2002: Lingle names Honolulu Deputy Police Chief Stephen Watarai as director of the Department of Public Safety.

>> January 2003: Lingle announces that Stephen Watarai withdrew his name as director of Public Safety. Lingle names James Propotnick as interim director.

>> March, 2000: Lingle picks John Peyton an assistant U.S. attorney in Hawaii for 20 years, as new public safety chief.

>> September 2003: Lingle says she wants to start redoing state jails and build one new state prison.


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