Recently, I went into the Maui Community Correctional Center. I was there to meet with the Warden and another official to talk with them about the problems facing MCCC that are becoming increasingly critical, namely the vast overcrowding that is plaguing all jails and prisons in Hawaii.
I entered through the guard house, under the high fence topped with razor wire, where I waited behind a man from the Department of Health. The metal spiral of this other visitor’s notebook had become undone and was hanging out. “You got to cut that off, you know; could be dangerous,” the guard told him.
I signed in and gave my bag over to the guard for a check. I had carefully followed the rules I was given for visitation–no jewelry, conservative dress, identification, no cell phone. Still, the gatekeeper asked me to button up my jacket.
“If you have a cell phone, the inmates can get a cell phone,” Toni Schwartz, the Public Information Officer for the Public Safety Department, explained as she met me at the gate to lead me into the building. We walked by Correctional Officers joking around with each other; they offered me a donut. It felt similar to any institutional work place, despite all the protocol. An inmate in an orange jumpsuit pointed us to where the Warden would meet us in a classroom. We passed a classroom with a big picture window, where two inmates were watching a video, and a library where another inmate was pecking away at an old typewriter.
We sat in a windowless room under fluorescent lighting. I was there to meet with Schwartz and Warden James Hirano to talk about the problems–and any successes–happening at MCCC. Hirano has been acting Warden since 2010 and began working at MCCC as a social worker in 1992, when the inmate population was closer to 130.
“It’s not an overnight problem that we’ve arrived at,” he said of the overcrowding of inmates. As of April, there were 437 inmates, in a facility designed to house 209 and updated to accommodate 301. “It’s been a long-ignored area,” he said. “Our legislator, and our community, continually and understandably, would rather support a hospital than a jail. The increase of population goes up in our community and in our institutions. If it’s not addressed, it keeps exacerbating year after year. Now we’re at the point where we have to do something more about it, or have another outside agency tell us what we should do about it. That’s the point we’ve reached.”
An outside agency has already taken note of the conditions. In January, the Hawaii American Civil Liberties Union filed a report with the Department of Justice to ask for a federal investigation and intervention to “force the State of Hawaii to address unconstitutional conditions and overcrowding in its jails and prisons.” According to the report, “Maui Community Correctional Center (“MCCC”) is the most egregiously overcrowded facility in the State of Hawai‘i, presently at 203% capacity–housing over double the number of individuals it was designed to hold since the year 2014.”
“Our conditions are very, very challenging at best,” said Hirano, describing how some inmates are living four to a room in cells designed for two. The ACLU reports that inmates are sleeping on the floor next to toilets. The amount of people in the jail places a burden on the water and sewer, which causes unsanitary conditions.
The jail, enclosed by a high chain link fence topped with razor wire, sits on seven acres in the heart of Wailuku. Its inmates are mainly pre-trial detainees and short-term misdemeanors. It opened as a state jail in 1976. In 1994, they had an additional expansion, bringing it to 301 theoretical beds. One hundred sixty-nine security staff work there in addition to supplemental non-uniformed staff like social workers. Fascinatingly, the Warden’s research has found that before 1973, the site “was originally built by the county to hold people in World War II,” citing another historical shame.
Because the seven acres are maxed out, in a perfect world, the jail would be moved to a new site. Plans for a new site at Pu‘unene have been floated by the Planning Department and lawmakers for years. However, according to a Jan. 5 report by The Maui News about the new Pulehunui Industrial Park, deputy director of the county Planning Department Michele Chouteau McLean said that the original master plan for the area has not been updated to include a new jail. She cites the high cost of infrastructure and concerns by the visitor industry, who don’t want tourists seeing a jail on their way to Wailea.
Costs for a new jail are estimated to be between $200 and $300 million. This is, of course, dependent on legislative funds and public opinion, and in competition with things like the new Kihei high school Maui also desperately needs. Though a new facility is the only lasting solution, this year the legislation released $6.3 million in construction funds.
“It helps; we’re trying to get people off the floor,” said Hirano, though “the biggest fix would be to build something else.” Schwartz points out that new facility would have a much lower cost of maintenance than they are currently dealing with. Last year, $200 million for a new jail on Maui was approved in the State House, but it died in the Senate.
Government leadership has debated the issue of our overcrowded jails and prisons for years. State Senator Roz Baker, D–South Maui, called MCCC “a lawsuit waiting to happen.” Concerns over litigation are based on the ACLU’s assertion that conditions in Hawaii’s jails and prisons are a violation of the constitution, specifically the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, which “protects prisoners not only from inhumane methods of punishment but also from inhumane conditions of confinement.” The ACLU reports cites living conditions to support this claim: a lack of access to medical care, sleeping on the floor, and decades-old plumbing built for far fewer people that create unsanitary conditions.
The conditions in the jail are a stressful situation for correctional officers and inmates alike. In a May 30 report by Hawaii News Now, an MCCC corrections officer (poorly disguised in silhouette and with a modified voice) said “it is only a matter of time before someone loses their life,” an assertion that the Public Safety Director called an “over-dramatization.”
Jail officials are neither the cause nor the solution for the problem, but they are the ones who have to deal with it. Hirano said that they try to create as many opportunities for out-of-cell time as possible to reduce the stress that comes from sitting in a small locked room with three other fully grown adults. Corrections officers also try to build relationships with the inmates to reduce violence. “It’s pretty bad,” said a former inmate of the crowding. “Guys are stacked, and it’s not great for mental health.”
“We understand that those kind of conditions are not conducive to anything but negativity or irritation to each other,” said Hirano. Despite these conditions, which may have been the cause of an “inmate disturbance” at MCCC in 2015, Hirano said that things go better than can be expected given the climate. “I think that because of the type of people we incarcerate, Maui people, they are a lot more cooperative with each other so they get along much better,” said Hirano.
Why are there so many inmates at MCCC? Undoubtedly population growth has to do with it, as well drug laws and policies stemming from the failed war on drugs. The inmates of MCCC are primarily pre-trial detainees, those with short-term convictions, and those getting ready for reintegration. According to a 2012 report by the Interagency Council on Intermediate Sanctions (the unfortunate acronym ICIS), recidivism rates for Hawaii jails and prisons are 48.9 percent, meaning around half of those released are arrested again within three years of release or parole.
But more than recidivism rates is the fact that pretrial detainees are held because they cannot make bail. This means many MCCC inmates are people have not yet been convicted and are not necessarily guilty, but cannot afford to go home on bail. According to prison reform researchers, the bail system is one of the major causes of growth in jail populations. The inability to pay bail money is not an indicator of guilt, and studies show that it also does not mean that detainees are at risk of fleeing. Rational thought might suggest the complete opposite, since those who cannot pay bail have few resources to do so. According to research, most people don’t run. With low homeownership rates and many who live paycheck to paycheck on Maui, it’s not hard to guess why people or their loved ones cannot afford bail.
In a February article in The Maui News, supervising attorney for the public defender’s office Wendy Hudson called bail rates on Maui “ridiculously high,” stating that “The real problem is bails are set so high, so there’re so many pretrial detainees. Indigents can’t even afford something low like $1,000 bail. It’s frightening, really.” There is currently a statewide committee tasked with investigating bail process reform, so we should see results in a few decades.
Population growth has also caused a different kind of problem for MCCC. The jail sits on seven acres, next to a cemetery and across from a shiny new subdivision. Fifty years ago, the jail was a solitary structure in the middle of nowhere, but development has meant that an entire community has grown up around it.
“People want it out of here,” said Hirano. The idea of relocating the jail is appealing to many residents who live in the area. The process of gentrification has resulted in cookie-cutter houses, a Starbucks and a Walgreens all within view of the jail. “Everything has grown up around it, and it’s stuck in the middle of that,” said Schwartz.
So with all that hardship, what’s going well at MCCC? Hirano is proud of Drug Court, an innovative program he calls “unique in the nation” which allows some nonviolent drug-related offenders to participate in intensive treatment and supervision. Recidivism rates are much lower than with regular probation, at only 13.85 percent of Drug Court graduates according to Drug Court administrator Dean Ishihara*. “One of the things we’ve found in corrections is the pathways out of recidivisms and the recurrence of junky thinking is involvement in higher education and access to jobs,” said Hirano. Since 2001, 462 people have graduated from Drug Court.
There are many nonprofits and volunteers that also assist in programs and treatment for inmates. “Our religious volunteers are a huge pieces of our programs. The judiciary, the policy department, MEO, Maui Youth and Family Services are all strong partners,” said Hirano. In a perfect world, Hirano would like to see more of “an infusion of programs to help with adjustments, and to help with decision-making to help them not perpetuate bad decision-making. While people are here, there’s a possibility of them making a better decision tomorrow if we have the ability to present them with differing views and approaches. We cannot change minds, but we can influence.”
As to what’s causing some of these problems, Hirano said “I wouldn’t want to be pegged as the person who has that answer, because I don’t think I have it. I just have the piece that I’ve seen.” It’s a fair answer, since the problems and solutions around this issue are complex and layered. What is causing the overcrowding that is plaguing not only our county jail, but prisons and jails across America, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world? And what’s to be done about it?
Undoubtedly one strong contributor is the failed war on drugs that pushed many into the system. The criminalization of addiction, an epidemic causing more deaths in America than traffic accidents, has exacerbated the problem, and so has the insufficient number of resources and treatment options on Maui for addicts and homeless people.
The truth is that it is a big, sticky issue, with no clear or simple solutions. It’s apparent that when funding for a new facility goes up against funding for roads or schools, most people’s opinions are clear on who deserves that money more. It’s not fair to see all inmates at MCCC as victims of the system, but it also doesn’t seem fair to view them simply as criminals deserving of what the constitution says are human rights violations. There are some tough questions involved in the problem and solution of it all. Where does the long process of bad decision-making begin? Who is responsible for correcting it? What do we value and what will we tolerate?
Hirano is right about the kind of cooperative and generous people that live on Maui. But we are also jealous of our safety and suspicious of crime that can affect our neighborhoods, our industry, and our island. We don’t treat inmates like our neighbors, but rather as a threat to our neighbors, which of course sometimes they are. There have been case studies in New York and New Jersey where states have managed to reduce their inmate populations. According to an article by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a public safety think tank, public engagement is key in reducing incarceration rates. Residents have to care.
The final question always seems to come down to money. Does this problem deserve our attention and resources? Who will pay for it? Well, we are already paying for it, both with taxpayer money going to Band-Aid fixes and with the more immeasurable costs to our society, and we may pay even more through litigation since the situation is clearly unlawful.
Money would help, of course, if administered correctly. But ultimately, what moves societies in the right direction is a more well-informed citizenry who understand the depth of complexity surrounding the issue of crime and incarceration, and has compassion for other humans. This kind of society, ideally, chooses and advises leaders who share their values and makes decisions accordingly.
I asked Hirano what he wished Maui residents knew about MCCC. “These people will get out,” he said. “This is a hiatus in their life. They will be your neighbor, my neighbor. They are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons.”
*This story originally mischaracterized recidivism rates for Drug Court graduates, and misspelled Dean Ishihara’s name.
Cover design: Darris Hurst