Gains observed at youth prison
The state is complying with more reforms
Training for guards and maintaining staff levels continue to be key issues as authorities push ahead with federally mandated reforms at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.
State and federal officials briefed lawmakers yesterday on the progress of reforms.
"We're going in the right direction, but obviously we still have a long way to go," said Martha Torney, interim director of the state Office of Youth Services, which oversees the Kailua facility.
The state and the U.S. Department of Justice reached an agreement in February 2006 to institute reforms at the facility, which has come under heavy scrutiny since a 2003 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii alleging that youths were held in unsafe, overcrowded, squalid and unusually punitive conditions.
The agreement listed 53 areas that needed to be addressed.
As of November, the most recent assessment by a federal overseer, the youth prison was in noncompliance on four issues and substantial compliance on three. The rest were in partial compliance.
The review was an improvement from July, when the state was found in noncompliance in 13 areas and substantially compliant in none.
"The state has placed the highest priority on life safety issues to ensure a safe environment for youth, staff administrators and visitors, without compromising public safety," said Alex Escarcega, the federal monitor charged with helping the state reach compliance.
Changes have included a moratorium on the use of holding cells deemed unsafe for youths on suicide watch, a revised grievance procedure, better access to mental health care and written training policies for guards, he said.
Lois Perrin, legal director for the ACLU-Hawaii, said the reforms still fall short.
"It's incredibly frustrating," Perrin told lawmakers. "A number of these areas of concern were identified by the ACLU in writing as far back as September 1993."
One of her main concerns was ensuring that guards are properly trained with written policies that spell out when force is needed.
"It's not enough to just hand them the policy," she said. "People need to know how it works."
Perrin said she also still had concerns over the grievance procedure and noted that youths do not have adequate access to an attorney or other form of legal help.
"We should always be striving to do more," she said.
Officials noted that policies for overtime and sick leave to maintain adequate staffing levels continue to be worked on with union representatives, adding that prison facilities nationwide deal with similar staffing issues.
Since the ACLU's initial report in 2003, the youth prison has undergone separate state and federal investigations, and audits to assess operations, finances and security.
"Although we have had many critical assessments of the youth facility conducted over the past few years, the findings often came to the same conclusions with overlapping recommendations," Torney said.
Officials agreed that one problem is the defined purpose of the youth facility, which is both "punishment" and "reintegration."
Torney urged lawmakers to support bills alive in the House and Senate that would redefine the purpose of the facility to focus on "rehabilitation" of youths.