Lingle welcomes youth prison hearing
State officials are expected to tell legislators the facility has made progress
Gov. Linda Lingle said her administration is looking forward to presenting lawmakers with an update on reforms being made at the state's youth prison, but she is concerned that legislative hearings into conditions at the facility could get bogged down in politics.
The first of three legislative hearings into conditions at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility is scheduled for today.
"I'm hoping that these hearings that the Legislature hosts are very open -- that the people from our staff are given an opportunity to lay out what we have achieved and what remains to be achieved," Lingle said yesterday. "The early indication, however, is that it was going to be a lot of politics."
Lawmakers said they decided to hold hearings to investigate why allegations of harsh conditions and abusive treatment persist at the Kailua lockup more than two years after the concerns were first raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.
Similar concerns were raised by the U.S. Department of Justice, which conducted its own investigation into the youth prison in October 2004 and released its report in August saying the facility existed in a "state of chaos."
Lingle removed the top two administrators at the facility after the ACLU's initial report in August 2003, and subsequent investigations have yielded a handful of convictions against youth corrections officers.
Administration officials have said they are implementing reforms and working on policies and procedures for personnel within the framework of union contracts. Officials also are focusing on diversion programs to reduce overcrowding at the youth correctional facility by keeping young offenders out of the prison system altogether.
Lawmakers say they are concerned that even though the population at the youth prison has been lower than in the past, when the allegations first surfaced, the administration still has had trouble getting the situation under control.
"The small number (of inmates) is one that makes it so that we should be able to have a handle on the situation," said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua), who will co-chair the legislative hearings. "The fact that the recent (Justice Department) report shows us that there's still a major problem causes us to say we don't want to be in a Felix situation."
She was referring to the Felix consent decree, which resulted from a 1993 lawsuit filed on behalf of special-needs student Jennifer Felix and others, alleging the state was in violation of federal law for failing to provide appropriate mental health and education services to children with disabilities. The decree was terminated earlier this year, but not before the Legislature held investigative hearings in 2001 to determine how the state had been complying with the court order.
Hanabusa, who also was a co-chairwoman of the Felix hearings, said the youth correctional facility briefings will be similar, with lawmakers having the ability to subpoena witnesses and have them testify under oath.
"It's very interesting in how different it is," she said. "All of a sudden you will have administrators who will admit -- because they are under oath -- that they don't know, which is something you rarely hear them say when they're before you in committee.
"They admit that they do not know, or they admit that they have no solutions, so we'll see where this one takes us."
Hanabusa said she is hopeful the hearings will help prevent another consent decree.
Lingle said she does not believe federal court intervention is necessary.
"That should be a last resort after people prove that they're not making progress," Lingle said. "That's not the case here -- we have made progress.
"There are challenges that remain. We have a lot more to do. We're not satisfied, but I am completely confident that we have the ability to be able to create a facility that treats these children with fairness and decency and protects the community at the same time."
Those invited to testify at today's hearing include Human Services Director Lillian Koller, Deputy Director Henry Oliva, Office of Youth Services Executive Director Sharon Agnew, facility Administrator Kaleve Tufono-Iosefa and Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii professor and expert on juvenile justice.
Follow-up hearings are scheduled for Nov. 8 and 10.