Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News

Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro
Photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin

Kaneshiro's priority
will be expanding prisons

He's considering the use of tents and
also barracks at Barbers Point

By Mike Yuen

City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro says he agreed to take the helm of the state Department of Public Safety after Gov. Ben Cayetano agreed that Hawaii's troubled prison system needs to be expanded.

Acquiring additional prison space will be the cornerstone of his public-safety program, said Kaneshiro, who has earned a tough-on-crime reputation during his 71/2-year tenure as prosecutor.

But given the state's budget constraints, Kaneshiro and Cayetano concurred that the state needs to consider "creative" ways to obtain low-cost prison space.

"We'll look at tent structures, at barracks structures," Kaneshiro said.

"We're not going to limit ourselves to any type of traditional prison space."

Kaneshiro, 47, said he is pressing Cayetano to use Barbers Point Naval Air Station's barracks as a prison when the base is decommissioned.

Cayetano wants Barbers Point turned into a civilian airport to alleviate air traffic at Honolulu Airport.

Kaneshiro said, however, his plan doesn't conflict with Cayetano's, as barracks housing inmates would be fenced off, and the runway still could be used.

Cayetano said Kaneshiro will serve at least two years, beginning in January when Kaneshiro's second term as prosecutor ends.

About an hour before Cayetano announced Kaneshiro's selection yesterday, a state judge ruled that Kaneshiro didn't commit prosecutorial misconduct when he publicly released sealed facts about a former Mokapu elementary teacher convicted of fondling a student's breast in 1995.

Circuit Judge Frances Wong said Kaneshiro's comments didn't prevent Lawrence Norton from receiving a fair trial on six new third-degree sexual assault charges allegedly involving six students.

Kaneshiro will inherit a department that has struggled with prison overcrowding, abuse of overtime and sick leave that has led to the state's paying $7 million and scandals stemming from guards using illicit drugs.

The department, said a public safety spokesman, is "90 percent in compliance" with a federal consent decree to improve prison conditions. But the state has yet to craft a prison population management plan to deal with future increases.

Legislators, labor leaders and attorneys hailed Kaneshiro as a man of integrity.

"He's a strong hand for a department that needs a strong hand right now," said House Public Safety Vice Chairman Ed Case (D, Manoa).

But some expressed reservations that Kaneshiro doesn't have a background in penology. They also wondered why Cayetano is having outgoing Public Safety Director George Iranon postpone his retirement four months and then serve as consultant for the first year of Kaneshiro's tenure.

House Speaker Joe Souki said while he wished Kaneshiro the best, "history has shown to some extent that when we had no one with a penology background, the prison system suffered. We did best when we brought in (the late George) Sumner, who was a noted penologist."

Senate minority leader Michael Liu, a member of the Senate Executive Appointments Committee that must confirm Kaneshiro, said it is "a little disturbing" that Iranon must serve as a consultant to assist Kaneshiro. "If he's qualified, why do we need a consultant?"

Cayetano said he does not yet know what Iranon's consultant salary will be.

Dan Foley, who represents the American Civil Liberties Union for prison issues, said he wishes Kaneshiro well. But he said it would have been better to appoint someone with experience in corrections. Foley said Kaneshiro's main problem would be dealing with overcrowding.

Gary Rodrigues, who heads the union that represents prison guards, said: "I don't know what (Iranon) can teach Keith Kaneshiro." He said Kaneshiro's "true test" will be whether he can turn around a prison-management culture that allows managers to remain in their posts even if they don't perform satisfactorily.

Cayetano, who during his campaign two years ago said he would rather spend money building schools than prisons, said: "I've never been against expanding prison space.

"I know we need to do it. But faced with the decision of spending $160 million to $170 million on a state-of-the-art concrete prison as the previous administration had planned for the Big Island, and building schools and doing things like that, the prison did not occupy a high priority for me."

The state can add hundreds of prison beds by using tent-like sprung shelters that cost $150,000 each to confine as many as 40 inmates, Cayetano said.

Kaneshiro said his public-safety program also will be keyed to establishing more effective in-prison treatment programs for inmates who have been drug users and alcoholics.

"You can't just run them through the prison system. We have to correct the problem," he said.

Kaneshiro said he also wants to:

Use inmates more frequently on public projects so they can develop job-related skills.

"Enhance the credibility, integrity and skills" of the department's Law Enforcement Division into a top-notch agency.

Star-Bulletin reporter Linda Hosek contributed to this report.

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