Saturday, August 20, 2005

Youth prison
update sought

Lawmakers want the state to
address last week’s critical
federal report

Lawmakers say they want more information from state officials about conditions and reforms at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.

A U.S. Justice Department report released last week said inadequate policies and procedures, combined with staffing shortages and deficient training for guards, had led to a "state of chaos" at the youth prison.

State officials, including Gov. Linda Lingle, noted that the federal investigation was completed in October and the state had since taken steps to address many of the agency's concerns, such as drafting training guidelines and adding staff positions.

First Deputy Attorney General Lisa Ginoza said yesterday the administration is committed to working with the federal agency to resolve problems and head off any court action. She said the state is still waiting for a separate Justice Department consultant's report that is expected to elaborate on the investigation and provide more specific recommendations.

Senate Human Services Committee Chairwoman Suzanne Chun Oakland said lawmakers need to know how the state plans to address the report and implement reforms.

"I need to know, as the chair of Human Services, how we can support improving the facility on behalf of the youth," said Chun Oakland (D, Kalihi-Liliha). "I think we need to look at everything.

"There hasn't been any communication from the administration on this."

Her House counterpart agreed.

"If Sen. Chun Oakland is willing, maybe we need to do a joint hearing to see what progress is being made as to the remedial actions they have taken since 2004," said House Human Services Chairman Alex Sonson (D, Pearl City-Waipahu).

Lingle already has said her administration is willing to work with the Legislature to address concerns.

"I think it's an issue now of filling the positions and then of properly training the people once we get them hired," Lingle said. "The Legislature has cooperated with us, and I expect if there are additional steps we need to take they will continue to be cooperative."

The Human Services committees held an informational briefing in April 2004 to hear from the Office of Youth Services, which oversees the Kailua lockup, on how reforms were progressing. That hearing came in response to an August 2003 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that alleged youth inmates were being held in overcrowded, unsanitary and abusive conditions.

After the initial ACLU report, Lingle immediately removed the facility's top two administrators, and criminal investigations were opened to address the allegations. One guard was convicted last year of raping a female inmate.

Since then the administration's main focus has been on programs to divert youths from prison as part of an effort to reduce the overall population at the facility.

The Justice Department began its investigation last August.

Sonson noted that during the 2005 session his committee shelved a resolution calling for a financial and management audit of the Office of Youth Services and its contracts related to the youth prison. He said he stopped the measure from advancing based on statements from the Office of Youth Services that reforms were being implemented.

"At the time, I felt that if they were making progress that I will leave them alone and see what they can do," Sonson said. "Now that the report came out, it seems like everyone is reacting to it."

Sharon Agnew, executive director of the Office of Youth Services, said problems existed at the facility well before the current administration took office -- a contention backed by the Justice Department report.

She said her agency recognized the problems but was partly hamstrung because changes to staffing levels and job duties had to be approved by unions.

"You can't just turn out the lights and say, 'OK, everybody go home, you're fired,' because it's a 24-7 operation," Agnew said after the report was released. "You have to do the improvements on the fly while the facility is operating.

"That's part of the slowness of it, but I think what we have demonstrated is consistency and desire for improvement."

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