ACLU sues over youth prison
The state replies it is already addressing federal criticisms
A civil rights group is suing the Lingle administration over allegedly harsh, overcrowded and abusive conditions at the state's youth prison.
The federal lawsuit was filed yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii on behalf of all current and future inmates at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.
It seeks a court-appointed monitor to develop and implement new policies and procedures to ensure enforcement of the inmates' constitutional rights.
"It is unfortunate that the state has shown that when left to its own devices, it is simply incapable of correcting conditions on its own," said Lois Perrin, the ACLU's legal director in Hawaii.
Attorney General Mark Bennett's office issued a statement yesterday saying the lawsuit had been reviewed and that it "essentially restates" issues raised by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year.
"We have worked with the Department of Justice to address its concerns about the facility, and we continue in our efforts to work with the DOJ," the statement said. "Improvements have been made at HYCF and will continue to be made."
Bridget Holthus, special assistant to the attorney general, said the office had no further comment at this time. A spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the youth prison through the Office of Youth Services, referred calls to Bennett's office.
State officials have previously said they are working to improve conditions at the Kailua lockup and have focused efforts on diverting youths from the prison system altogether.
As of yesterday there were 47 boys and 11 girls being held at the facility, compared with two years ago, when the population regularly topped 90, officials said.
The Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility has been the subject of state and federal investigations since August 2003, when the ACLU released a report alleging that youths were being held in overcrowded, unsanitary and abusive conditions.
Gov. Linda 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. Most recently, a 24-year veteran guard was sentenced this month to five years' probation and 90 days in jail on weekends after being convicted of third-degree sexual assault against a male inmate.
In August the U.S. Justice Department reported the results of its own investigation into the facility, stating that inadequate policies and procedures, combined with staffing shortages and deficient training for guards, had led to a "state of chaos" at the youth prison.
The Justice Department report also said young inmates suffered "unduly harsh and punitive conditions" on a daily basis.
Lingle and other officials noted that the Justice Department's investigation was completed in October 2004, and the state had since taken steps to address most of the agency's concerns.
In his response to the Justice Department, Bennett outlined some steps that have been taken to address each of the agency's recommendations. Those steps have included drafting a training plan for guards, adding positions at the prison, removing some suicide hazards and requiring more specific incident reports.
The Justice Department has the authority to take legal action if it feels that the state is not complying with its recommendations.
Sharon Agnew, executive director of the Office of Youth Services, has said her agency will work with the federal government to avoid any court action.
Perrin said the state has been too slow to act.
The lawsuit alleges that the state has failed to protect inmates from abuse and harassment, has failed to provide inmates with an adequate grievance procedure and has failed to provide adequate counseling.
"The kids are frustrated because although HYCF has been in the spotlight for two years, there has been no change at the facility," Perrin said. "We had been trying to cooperate with the state for a year, but those efforts were effectively rebuffed."
Yesterday's lawsuit was the second filed by the ACLU in the past two months over treatment of youths at the Kailua facility.
A lawsuit filed last month on behalf of a 17-year-old male-to-female transgender prisoner, an 18-year-old lesbian inmate and an 18-year-old male prisoner perceived to be gay alleged "a campaign of unrestrained harassment, abuse and other maltreatment" by youth corrections officers and staff.
State officials also have declined comment on that lawsuit.