The Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC) has seen better days. It’s overcrowded and in disrepair. Designed in the 1970’s to house 209 inmates, the actual population can reach near double that number.
“Major repair and maintenance needs must be addressed if we’re going to stay here,” Acting Warden Alan Nouchi says. “The roof leaks and one of the wooden dormitories, in my opinion, is not fit for habitation.”
When asked if he’s put in for a maintenance request, Nouchi says, “My problem would be where would the inmates go when the structure goes down? We’d have to put up some portable tents or ship ‘em off.
MCCC is authorized to employ 169 officers, but has had to make do with just 100, who work very hard and earn a lot of overtime.
“We’re supposed to be providing a safe, clean and secure environment,” he says. “I have a fence line that is rusting. In a nutshell, some big decisions will have to be made.”
Overcrowding is well known on the Mainland. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently brought a lawsuit against an overcrowded privately operated prison in San Diego. Conditions there were so crowded prison officials chose to “triple cell” inmates. The ACLU based its case on the view that society must not impose cruel and unusual punishment on the incarcerated.
These days, three prisoners sharing a cell is common for Hawai`i’s Community Correctional Centers.
The Maui News recently ran a story on the condition of mental health care in the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC). Vit Patel, the chief psychiatrist for the Hawai`i Department of Public Safety (DPS), which runs the prisons, was quoted as saying, “If you are a prisoner, God help you.” The story went on to detail deplorable conditions and subsequent lawsuits by the ACLU as well as investigations by the Department of Justice.
A variety of ideas are floating around Maui to address MCCC’s overcrowding. For one, the state may build a new Maui prison at the old Pu`unene airstrip. In fact, DPS officials recently began meeting with Governor Linda Lingle on the plan. One item up for discussion is what to do with the $24 million the state Legislature approved last year for a new Maui prison.
In 1995, state officials decided a good “temporary” fix for prison overcrowding was to send 300 prisoners to mainland prisons. In the last 11 plus years many more prisoners have been sent, and more are slated to go.
There’s a proposal pending in the Legislature to increase by 200 the number of inmates sent to the mainland. That would bring the number to more than 2,000. It’s expected to pass easily.
Today near half of the state’s prisoners serve their time in mainland facilities. In fact, Hawai`i is first in the nation for sending prisoners out of state and contracting penal services.
Originally, prisoners went to prisons in Texas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Colorado, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arizona, all run by different agencies and corporations. Since then, Hawai`i has negotiated a contract with the Nashville, Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to handle all the state’s mainland prisoners.
CCA, a publicly traded company (symbol: CXW), says they’ve saved the state millions of dollars while solving issues Hawai`i hasn’t been able to solve on its own. In the last year, its stock has doubled from $26.74 a share to nearly $50.
“The Company is the nation’s largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention facilities and one of the largest prison operators in the United States, behind only the federal government and three states,” says the CCA website. “The Company currently operates 64 facilities, including 40 company-owned facilities, with a total design capacity of approximately 72,000 beds in 19 states and the District of Columbia.”
It costs Hawai`i less per day to house prisoners with CCA than it costs the state per day. CCA spokesman Steve Owen has said that the company has saved Hawai`i $128 million in the first 10 years.
Others aren’t so sure. Reports from the DPS say that certain medical expenses, transportation costs, and long-distance teleconferencing, aren’t covered in Hawai`i’s contract. More importantly, there are the costs of recidivism, mainland gang exposure, the costs to families in Hawai`i and the extra costs of monitoring.
Having privately run corporations run prisons is controversial, to say the least. In 2006, students and teachers at Yale University forced that school to divest all $90 million it had with CCA. Citing issues ranging from prisoner mistreatment and staff incompetence, to general distaste for putting “dollars into dungeons,” many groups have protested the growing private prison industry.
Besides housing prisoners and running prisoner programs, CCA builds prisons. In fact, they can build a prison far faster than a government agency.
Plus, CCA hasn’t built a prison in any Hawai`i resident’s backyard. This certainly helps their popularity.
CCA’s latest answer to the Hawai`i inmate question is Saguaro, a new prison in Eloy, Arizona scheduled to open this summer. Built solely for inmates from Hawai`i, it will hold 1,896 beds.
Building the prison will help CCA as well, freeing up space in other facilities for the new California inmates the company recently contracted to house.
One of the biggest problems facing Hawai`i’s prison system today is recidivism. In fact, simply being in prison is the single greatest indicator of an ex-con’s likelihood of returning to prison. For Hawai`i’s prisoners, an amazing 51 to 82 percent of inmates will get in trouble after their release, according to a Hawaii DPS study from December of 2002.
There has been a recent state push for more “transitional” or “community” beds (read: minimum security facilities) and to get low-security convicts out of high-security prisons. At the end of January, the state House and Senate Public Safety committees heard testimony on a variety of bills addressing this issue from different angles: funding for Maui’s Being Empowered and Safe Together (BEST) reintegration program; expanding Restorative Justice programs; finding locations for new minimum security centers.
Transitional beds go to “community” or “minimum” level security inmates. There are roughly 50 detainees at MCCC who’d fall into this category.
Prison reformers see “community beds” as a step in the right direction, but fear wasted opportunity. They’re trying to convince lawmakers that new prisons without reintegration programs will only perpetuate the problems.
“We’re hoping that DPS invests its money in reintegration programs and we close the revolving door,” says Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons.
Carrie Anne Shirota, who directs the BEST Program, agrees. “If we only build more prisons, my fear is that we’ll just be throwing money into a system that’s failed at rehabilitation and reintegration in our community,” she says.
The Reentry Policy Council says 97 percent of prisoners will eventually return to civilian life. With current recidivism levels, most will end up back behind bars. Add to the mix new offenders, general Hawai`i population growth and the trend toward “tough on crime” legislation like the “Three Strikes” law of 2006, the prison population is going to grow even faster and inmates will stay locked up even longer. A June 5, 2005 Maui News editorial cites a four-fold growth projection at MCCC by 2013.
Experts assessing the options say that even at today’s levels, even if all community and minimum-security convicts left high-security prisons, there’d be no place to send them. The State doesn’t have the housing or programs in place. And Hawai`i’s non-profit sector has many programs, but lacks the funding and staff to handle the increased load.
Then there’s the local growth of gangs among released prisoners. “Hawai`i has unleashed a monster,” says Brady.
It seems that when the state sent inmates from Hawai`i to mainland prisons, they came into contact with mainland gangs. Some became gangsters themselves. When released, they return to Hawai`i as full-fledged members of United Samoan Organization (USO), La Familia and Mafioso.
“In Maui we’ve been fortunate and there haven’t been any major problems,” Nouchi of MCCC says, though he adds that his staff has had to learn about gang tattoos and markings.
Sending so many prisoners off to the mainland splits up inmate families like never before. In an attempt to soften the situation, Senate Bill 917 would return all female prisoners held on the mainland to Hawai`i by 2009.
Officials from DPS have said that they couldn’t possibly make this happen as the current Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCCC) in Kailua on Oahu can’t handle such an increase.
Still, the bill brings up the question of the long-term costs of keeping parents so far from their children—even if those parents are criminals.
The number of women getting locked up is actually growing faster than the number of men. Between 2003 and 2005, there was a 51 percent rise in the number of males convicted of crimes involving ice. For women, the increase was 69 percent.
Nationally, the Child Welfare League of America says 75 percent of all incarcerated women have children. These children are six times more likely to end up in prison themselves, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute.
RaeDeen Keahiolalo-Karasuda, a doctoral candidate at the University of Hawai`i, is studying the impact of incarceration on families and communities. After weighing the available statistics, she contends the prison system in Hawai`i is creating more problems than it needs to.
In her January 2007 testimony to the state house she says, “I ask that you please intervene in and stop this situation where one generation is being exiled to out-of-state prisons and the next generation is being dispersed throughout U.S. foster and adoption systems.”
She encourages the state to consider regular family visits, saying this will help increase rates of prisoner rehabilitation as well as better psychological health of the as-yet, non-criminal children. But in the 2003 case Overton v Bazetta, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some restrictions on child visits are actually designed to protect the children themselves, though the Court went on to say that a “de facto” ban on all visits would be illegal.
While there isn’t a ban on contact with Mainland prisoners, it’s not very convenient for a family in Hawai`i to get to Arizona. Still, the courts have been very consistent in their rulings that “parents in prison have no right to insist on staying in their home state for the sake of their children.”
The Hawai`i DPS now includes a Mainland Operations branch. This office ensures that CCA lives up to their contractual agreements and that all Hawai`i prisoners are being handled appropriately at their Mainland prisons. Still, questions have arisen as to whether there is effective monitoring of out-of-state prisons.
In one case in 2006, Sarah Ah Mau, 43, died while housed at the Otter Creek Correctional Center in Wheelwright, Kentucky. In a Jan. 4, 2006 Honolulu Advertiser story, Kat Brady of the Community Alliance on Prisons said that inmates reported to her Ah Mau had stomach pain for four weeks, but prison guards only gave her laxatives. When Ah Mau tried to convince prison officials that she was seriously ill, she was threatened with being sent into isolation if she continued to complain.
In the story, Michael Gaede, who was then the DPS spokesman, said that Otter Creek records showed only that prison officials gave Ah Mau castor oil for constipation and that there was no record of her returning for follow-up treatment.
These and other health and contract stories have led to a state house bill proposing better monitoring of inmates on the mainland. But local correctional facilities don’t have a much better record of monitoring. Audits occur roughly once a year, but are often performed by peers rather than disinterested third party observers.
In either case, better monitoring of prisons is paramount to ensure that punishment is meted out according to our society’s standards.
But when it comes to funding, the relatively small prisoners’ rights lobby usually gets lost in the crowd fighting for more popular and socially acceptable budget items like schools and hospitals.
Kaleihau Kamau`u knows all about this. He works with Hui Kak`o’ Pa`o Hao, an Oahu community based support group for prisoners and their families.
Kaleihau spent 28 years behind bars. He was also a party to a successful lawsuit allowing Hawaiian prisoners in Mainland facilities to practice their traditional spirituality.
Some prison experts say male inmates prefer the Mainland because they get televisions in their cells and a better choice of food in the prison commissary. But Kaleihau thinks the majority of Hawai`i’s Mainland prisoners would actually rather stay on the Mainland for an entirely different reason.
“Reason is that the system in Hawai`i is screwed,” he says. It would be “a beautiful thing” to bring people back to the state, he says, but “bring them back to what?” MTW