Mechanism in place for improving youth prison
The state and the Justice Department have agreed on a three-year plan to protect inmates' rights at Hawaii's youth prison.
THE state has dodged federal court oversight of its youth prison
but must toe the line to comply with an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to provide humane treatment of its young inmates. Its response to previous complaints has been inadequate, but Attorney General Mark Bennett appropriately recognizes the importance of making "sweeping and comprehensive changes" to come into compliance.
Gov. Lingle replaced the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility's administrator and a corrections specialist in 2003 after Bennett verified abuse at the Kailua facility. The ACLU had learned about children being forced to sit naked in cells, relieve themselves in buckets and subjected to beatings.
Despite the leadership change, problems persisted. The Justice Department reported last August that staffing shortages and poor training of guards had created "a state of chaos" and "unduly harsh and punitive conditions" for the facility's wards. Lingle responded that the report was out of date -- based on an October 2004 inspection of the facility -- and the state had taken steps to address most of the concerns.
Steps to be taken over the next three years will be subject to an independent monitor to ensure their effectiveness. The agreement is aimed at increasing state efforts to protect inmates from guards and fellow wards, develop and adequate grievance procedure, properly train guards and other administrators and develop policies to recognize and provide treatment for suicidal inmates.
The agreement does not address specific allegations that guards and an administrator taunted, harassed and unfairly punished homosexual and transgender inmates. However, U.S. District Judge J. Michael Seabright ordered a halt to such abuse on the same day the Justice Department pact was announced.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit last fall on behalf of the inmates alleging the abuse. Seabright ruled that evidence indicated the existence of "systemic problems" resulting in verbal, sexual and physical abuse of such inmates. Bennett says he plans to discuss with the judge how the Justice Department agreement relates to his preliminary injunction.
State attorneys suggested the lawsuit stemmed from three youths' desire to retaliate against the prison for punishment they received for minor infractions. Seabright rejected the theory as not plausible, a conclusion that raises further questions about the state's credibility regarding the facility.
Lingle says she is "very troubled by the conditions" described by Seabright, adding that harassment of any wards is "totally unacceptable," whatever their race, gender or sexual orientation. Those strong words and the Justice Department's willingness to shelve the prospect of judicial oversight are encouraging indicators that the state has come to grips with the problem.
Vigilance by federal attorneys and the ACLU should detect any divergence from Bennett's laudable goal of "a facility that respects the constitutional rights of the wards at the facility and gives them the best possible treatment to turn their lives around."
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