Hawaii’s Prison System

Hawaii is a tropical paradise, consistently ranked as one of the happiest, healthiest states to live. Despite this, there is still crime, and crime leads to punishment, sometimes in the form of a prison cell.

The Hawaii prison system includes four prisons and four jails, plus a contract private prison in Arizona. The state prisons include Halawa Correctional Facility, Waiawa Correctional Facility, and Women’s Community Correctional Center which are all located on Oahu and Kulani Correctional Facility on the Big Island. Hawaii Community Correctional Center, Kauai Community Correctional Center, Maui Community Correctional Center, and Oahu Community Correctional Center are county-based jails that hold pre-trial detainees, locally-sentenced misdemeanant offenders, and those with a sentence of one year or less.

Old and Overcrowded Prisons

Hawaii’s prisons suffer from two major problems: they are overcrowded and the facilities are in desperate need of repair. As of March 2016, 4,634 inmates were crammed into space designed to house 2,491.

One of Gov. Calvin Ige’s top legislative priorities was to finance the relocation of the crumbling 100-year-old Oahu Community Correctional Center. House Bill 2388 and Senate Bill 2917 were introduced to allow the administration to pursue a number of different options to quickly obtain the funds, including using a sale of $489 million worth of general obligation bonds. However, lawmakers couldn’t agree on how much money should be allocated for the relocation and where the new facility should be built, so the bills are essentially dead for this legislative session. Plus any plan to build a new prison would have to wait for OCCC’s replacement, estimated to take at least five to seven years.

Halawa Correctional Facility deals with the most difficult inmates that other prisons in Hawaii or on the mainland won’t take: those with medical problems, the mentally ill, and inmates serving life terms who don’t behave. The facility was built to hold one inmate per cell, around 500 inmates, but they are currently overcapacity with 1,124 beds and sometimes a third inmate sleeps on the floor.

Halawa is nearly 30 years old and needs upgrades in order to keep functioning. Every lock and door throughout the prison has to be replaced or it risks another system breakdown like it experienced in the fall of 2014. In addition, millions of dollars must be invested into the plumbing system, which consistently has backups and sewage leaks, shutting down cells, further contributing to overcrowding.

The lock replacement project, which is forecasted to cost $10 million, was originally scheduled to start in March 2016, but since prisons officials plan to do the lock and plumbing repairs simultaneously, the improvements won’t get underway until next October. Upgrades will take over a year to complete, and 250 prisoners will need to be sent to a privately-run prison in the mainland, to free up space during the repairs, costing another $6 million.

Hawaii’s Out-of-State Prisoner

Because there is only so much room available in our already-packed jail cells, Hawaii has to ship overflow, currently almost 1,400 inmates or about a quarter of its overall inmate population, to the mainland. Often, the best-behaving prisoners — those with no disciplinary record, escape history, or medical issues — are the most likely to be sent an ocean away from home.

Hawaii first began sending inmates to mainland prisons in 1995 as a “short-term solution to chronic overcrowding,” when beds were secured in a privately run Texas facility. Over the years, Hawaii expanded the practice, sending thousands of prisoners to 14 facilities across eight states. Today, the state sends all its overflow prisoners to Saguaro Correctional Center, a medium security facility in Arizona which was opened specifically for Hawaii in 2007.

A Vicious Cycle

Keeping prisoners out of state creates a number of different problems for the inmate and their loved ones. For one, it’s difficult for them to file appeals and take care of their legal needs, that need to be done within a timely manner, because it takes longer than usual to get their hands on the forms and information needed.

Multiple studies have found that prisoners who maintain close ties with family, friends, and others from home are far less likely to commit additional crimes, but Saguaro is not merely a drive away or couple hundred dollar ticket to another island. Mahealani Meheula, whose boyfriend and nephew are both inmates at Saguaro, estimates the average cost of visiting Saguaro by herself is $1,000 to $1,200, or about six months of her savings. Meheula also pre-pays for phone calls from prison for about $100 a month, but some families in Hawaii pay up to $300 per month.

Since potential employers, landlords, and social service providers are thousands of miles away, planning to re-enter society is also more challenging for out-of-state inmates. All of these hardships increase the likeliness that these prisoners will assume a criminal identity and continue to commit criminal acts once released.

The Cheaper Option

Saguaro is run by for-profit company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). In the state’s current contract, signed in 2011, Hawaii pays CCA $70.49 a day per prisoner at Saguaro, compared with an average of $140 a day for an inmate at any of the four prisons back home.

Caroline Isaacs, program director of the American Friends Service Committee in Tucson, Arizona, pointed out that this lower rate creates a dependent situation that’s very dangerous.

“This gets to the heart of one of the problems you have in Hawaii: They have nowhere else to go. If you want to incarcerate people at the same rate that you have been, you’re stuck,” Isaacs said.

Despite having a history of problems, including three murders of inmates from Hawaii, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety is expected to sign a new contract with CCA very soon, as it was the sole bidder to meet Hawaii’s private prison needs.

The Good News

In hopes of reducing incarceration of low-level, nonviolent offenders and bringing back prisoners from the mainland, former Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) into law back in 2012. JRI is a federally backed program that has seen success in other states and was projected to lead to a reduction of over 1,000 inmates by 2018. Although Hawaii’s overall inmate populations has only gone down 35 since 2012, as part of this effort, the state reinvested $10.6 million to expand the availability of community-based treatment programs, hire additional corrections staff and parole officers to complete risk and needs assessments and support reentry efforts, and hire research and planning staff.

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety, under the direction of Nolan Espinda, an aggressive recruiting campaign has been implemented to fill shortages at all of Hawaii’s correctional facilities. As a result, visiting privileges have not had to be canceled in over a year, and programs that reduce recidivism, including rehabilitative programs, educational classes, and religious services, have expanded.

Another positive effort, one that has worked to prevent those from going or returning to jail, is the Hawaii Opportunity Probation With Enforcement (HOPE) Program started by Hawaii state court Judge Steven Alm to reduce drug use, crime rates, and incarceration.

While HOPE focuses on keeping those on probation out of jail, the Big Island is working on reducing incarceration rates by successfully reintegrating offenders back into society with employment training programs, peer support programs, job fairs, family reunification programs and other services.

How We Can Fix Hawaii’s Prison System

Although it would be nice to have correctional facilities in good working order, it seems the best way to remedy overcrowding, and the resulting structural problems that come from overuse, is to have less prisoners.

This is not to say people shouldn’t go behind bars when they deserve it, but that we need to identify when jail time isn’t the best option and also provide community support to those reintegrating back into society so that they don’t relapse into their familiar habits.

When the Council of State Governments Justice Center analyzed Hawaii’s criminal justice system, they identified key issues and made the following recommendations for improvements.

– Reduce delays in the pretrial process

Extensive delays in the pretrial process increased the average length of stay for pretrial detainees. Utilizing a quick but objective risk assessment within three days of admission to jail would determine who should remain in jail to await trial and who should be released to supervision in the community.

– Make paying bail easier

Hawaii’s average length of stay for pretrial detainees ultimately released on money bail is 32 days compared to an average of 12 days in many mainland locations. Bail should be available to pay 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and methods of paying bail should be expanded.

– Reduce probation terms for certain types of offenses

Probation length should be capped at three years for Class B/C felony offenses because spending less time monitoring low and medium risk probationers and parolees who have complied with their conditions of supervision allows resources to be focused on those who are more likely to reoffend and need closer monitoring.

– Require the Hawaii Paroling Authority to base programming requirements and release decisions on the results of an objective risk assessment

Objective risk assessment instruments have proven to be more effective than individual judgment in identifying an individual’s risk of reoffense. Objective risk assessment would also allow for the most effective parole plan for each parolee and minimize the chances of a high-risk individual being prematurely released back into society.

– Release individuals identified as being at low risk for recidivism at the end of their minimum sentence

Low-risk individuals would not benefit from further imprisonment beyond the minimum sentence and granting parole to these individuals would allow more focus on high-risk inmates.

– Limit the term of reincarceration for first-time violations of conditions of parole

Limiting the length of stay to six months for parole violators who are not charged with new crimes can ensure more appropriate and effective consequences.

– Allow judicial discretion in sentencing second-time felony drug possession offenses

Currently, a judge must give mandatory sentencing for second-time drug possession. Judges should have discretion in second-time felony drug possession cases to consider the circumstances of each individual case to determine whether probation or prison would be the most effective rehabilitative path.

– Raise the felony theft threshold

The current felony theft threshold in Hawaii, at $300, is among the lowest in the country, with the average above $700. Raising the felony theft threshold to $750 will prevent lower-level offenders from receiving a felony charge that will have more lasting negative consequences.

– Ensure a minimum period of supervision for all people convicted of felony offenses leaving prison

Mandatory parole supervision would require that discharged individuals meet certain conditions and maintain contact with a parole officer to receive assistance in transitioning back to the community, reducing the risk of repeat offenses.

– Improve victim restitution collection and increase payments to victims

Increasing victim restitution collection to 25 percent of all funds deposited into an inmate account will ensure accountability and help restore financial losses to victims.