Limit recidivism by increasing isles' prison capacity
Plans to build new prisons in Hawaii have been shelved while the number of inmates sent to mainland facilities increases.
NEITHER Gov. Linda Lingle nor state legislators have been willing to go forward with plans for new prisons to hold Hawaii's increasing inmate population. While sending prisoners to mainland facilities is cheaper, the long-range cost is high in the form of steeper recidivism. Aware of the increasing problem, the state's leaders unfortunately have chosen to stay the course.
No recent studies have been made, but the rate at which felons commit more crimes after their release from prison is known to be higher for those held behind bars many miles from home. About one-third of Hawaii's 6,000 inmates are serving their time on the mainland.
Four years ago, then-interim state Public Safety Director James Propotnick estimated that 90 percent of those who were incarcerated on the mainland return to commit other crimes, including parolees returned to jail for technical violations. The recidivism rate for those incarcerated in Hawaii ranged from 47 percent to 57 percent, he said.
The problem has surfaced in Hawaii and other states that have been unwilling to build enough prisons, the New York Times reported at the top of yesterday's front page. It has been exacerbated by moving Hawaii's inmates from one private facility on the mainland to another, disrupting their educational programs and forcing them to reapply for telephone privileges, which can take six months.
"You lose your family identity," said Bob Weier, a Hawaii inmate being held in Arizona. "And that's not good, because when we go back into society -- and more than 95 percent of us will -- the only ones who are going to take care of you are your family."
Five years ago, then-Gov. Ben Cayetano was near agreement with a private company to build and possibly operate a prison at Halawa to house more than 1,000 inmates. The deal collapsed when the projected construction costs increased and the incoming Lingle administration opposed the plan.
Lingle instead proposed two privately funded 500-bed prisons, but she decided a year ago that such an idea was "impractical." Local residents "simply don't want one in their community," she explained.
Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, then the judiciary committee chairwoman, said Lingle's turnabout "goes contrary to what we have been looking at and the best interests of our society."
However, a bill that would have assigned the Department of Public Safety to identify three potential sites in Hawaii for a minimum security prison died this year in a joint House-Senate conference. The bill included a constitutionally questionable provision that all 174 female inmates on the mainland be returned to Hawaii by July 2009.
Instead, the Legislature overrode Lingle's veto of a bill calling for mainland-held inmates to be returned to Hawaii at least a year prior to their parole or release date to enter a transitional program. The new law does not say where they will be held during that transition.