Youth prison workers paint bleak picture of conditions
THE LINGLE administration faced harsh criticism yesterday from workers who testified that unsafe conditions at the state's youth prison stem from alleged abuse of young inmates, inadequate staffing, a lack of policies and procedures, increased youth-on-youth attacks and overall bad morale among guards.
Staff members, who testified under oath before a legislative committee, said they did not feel safe while performing their jobs, adding that they felt their concerns have been ignored by top state officials.
When asked whether they thought the current administration was capable of properly running the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, five youth corrections officers said no.
"As the hearing goes on, it's looking worse and worse," said House Judiciary Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, co-chairwoman of the joint House-Senate committee investigating conditions at the Kailua youth prison. "What has been consistent with all the testifiers today -- the medical staff, the social workers, the teachers and guards -- is there's a lack of communication with the administration."
Administration officials said they were aware of the allegations raised at yesterday's hearing, adding that the concerns were not being ignored.
"I understand why they may feel that way," said Sharon Agnew, executive director of the Office of Youth Services, which oversees the prison. "It's not that things are being ignored, but that we have to be very cautious about how we handle the issues that are presented to us.
"In cases where serious incidents are reported, I do not discuss the procedures we go through in invoking a criminal investigation."
FACILITY administrator Kaleve Tufono-Iosefa said matters are often discussed among officials, if not with staff members, but acknowledged that communication has been a problem.
"This is part of change," Tufono-Iosefa said. "We do have definite challenges with our middle management team, and that's what we've been working with a consultant on."
But workers painted a bleak picture of conditions, echoing what has been alleged in two lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and an investigation conducted by the U.S. Justice Department.
Lawmakers have convened the hearings to investigate why allegations of harsh and abusive conditions continue to plague the facility more than two years after the issues were raised in a report by the ACLU.
Dr. Robert Bidwell, a pediatrician contracted by the Office of Youth Services, said the ACLU's August 2003 report helped make it easier for workers to expose what had been a "conspiracy of silence."
"All of us should've spoken up so much sooner," he said.
Bidwell and Linda Hadley, a nurse practitioner, said that while alleged physical abuse has largely declined during the past two years, reports of emotional and psychological abuse are on the rise.
Teachers and social workers testified that they feared for their safety because guards, many of whom are fearful of being placed on administrative leave for being too aggressive in dealing with unruly youths, often shied away from immediately diffusing threatening situations.
Guards said a lack of staffing and policies and inadequate training on existing policies has led to confusion among the rank and file as to when to act and what type of force is appropriate in trying to subdue a young inmate.
They also criticized the administration for not taking a tougher stance against young offenders who they say provoke guards, knowing that the most they will get as punishment is an early bedtime.
"We're dealing with the worst of the worst as far as juveniles," said Daniel Jones, a youth corrections officer in his eighth year at the youth prison.
Tufono-Iosefa said the administration is committed to carrying out a program stressing rehabilitation and treatment over traditional incarceration, but said she understands more training will have to be done to make the program successful.
Yesterday's hearing ran for almost seven hours without lawmakers getting a chance to question administration officials, who have been subpoenaed to appear before the committee and testify under oath. The committee is scheduled to meet again on Wednesday to hear from them.