Youth prison still in ‘chaos’
Lawmakers open hearings this week on why problems persist
More than two years after a civil rights group alleged juveniles held at the state's youth prison were housed in overcrowded, unsanitary and abusive conditions, lawmakers are holding hearings to find out why the allegations persist.
Since August 2003, when the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii released the allegations in a report to Gov. Linda Lingle, concerns about inmate mistreatment and slow progress in reforms have continued to plague the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.
An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed many of the ACLU's allegations and said the Kailua facility existed in a "state of chaos." The ACLU, meanwhile, has filed two federal lawsuits alleging mistreatment of youths in state custody.
State officials say they are making progress, but have urged patience, noting some problems are deep-rooted and that change does not happen overnight.
Lawmakers simply want answers.
"We're not convinced that we've made the kinds of advances that we're supposed to have made," said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa. "We've given this administration the opportunity to do the corrective action, and it appears as if they have not been successful."
Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua) and House counterpart Rep. Sylvia Luke (D, Pacific Heights-Punchbowl) head a joint legislative committee that convenes tomorrow to investigate the progress of proposed reforms at the Kailua lockup.
Both say the Legislature wants to avoid federal court oversight of the youth prison.
"The last thing we need right now, or want, is a consent decree," said Luke. "As soon as the federal court and federal government take over a state program, then the state has very little ability to reform or change itself."
The Justice Department has the authority to take legal action if it feels the state is not complying with its recommendations.
In August the Justice Department reported the results of its 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.
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, state Attorney General Mark 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.
Sharon Agnew, executive director of the state Office of Youth Services, which oversees HYCF, said the state continues working with the Justice Department to head off legal action.
She said she welcomed the opportunity to share information with lawmakers during the upcoming hearings.
"Change isn't easy," Agnew said Friday. "I think progress is right on target with where it should be.
"We're in a state system that requires a lot of procedure -- it's not like the private sector -- and we've been going as fast as we can at rebuilding a foundation brick by brick, and the progress is dependent on the brick before it."
Administration officials have said they are trying to reduce overcrowding by focusing on diversion programs to keep youths out of the prison system altogether. The population at the facility has averaged around 50 to 60 wards in recent months, after regularly topping 90 when the ACLU allegations first surfaced, officials said.
Lingle has noted that she took immediate action upon first receiving the ACLU's 2003 report, removing the facility's top two administrators and further pursuing investigations into alleged abuses.
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.
But even Lingle, this week, acknowledged that the state still has "a long way to go" in reforming the youth prison.
"I don't mind having our feet held to the fire because it is such an important issue and there is such a need for change," Lingle said.
Critics say the state has not moved quickly enough.
"Frankly, the state's response to date has been dismal," said ACLU attorney Lois Perrin. "After two years the children and their families deserve more than excuses.
"We believe that the hearings will provide the basis for a necessary independent investigation into the systematic problems at HYCF and provide the public with more information about the root of those problems."