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ACLU asks feds to probe Hawaii prison overcrowding

Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo is one of seven state-operated correctional facilities that is overcrowded and violating the constitutional rights of inmates, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii Foundation said in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice dated Friday.

The state’s prisons and jails don’t meet minimum standards and violate the Eighth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution which prohibit “cruel and unusual punishment,” the ACLU said in a written statement.

“They are old. They are overcrowded. And lack of maintenance has made these facilities worse,” ACLU Legal Director Mateo Caballero said Tuesday.

The ACLU said the complaint, which requests a federal investigation, followed a yearlong ACLU probe it said outlined “severe overcrowding and underfunding” in seven of the nine state-operated jails and prisons leading to “system-wide deterioration in nearly every aspect of functioning.”

“The most common concerns are the number of inmates to a cell,” Caballero said. “Many of the facilities were designed for two or three inmates to a cell, and they currently house sometimes four to five. … We’ve also received complaints about the … lack of medical and mental health services being provided. And the main reason is, in all facilities, for medical and mental health workers, they’re short-staffed.

“We’ve also had complaints about the pervasive lack of hygiene items and the general unsanitary conditions of the facilities.”

“The Department of Public Safety forwarded the ACLU’s complaint letter to the Department of the Attorney General for its consideration and advice this afternoon,” attorney general spokesman Joshua Wisch said in a Tuesday email. “The five-part, thirty page letter makes allegations regarding events that span multiple years over multiple administrations. Reviewing the claims made in this letter will take time. The Attorney General will consult with the Governor and the Director of Public Safety and respond as appropriate.”

The end-of-month inmate population report issued Dec. 31 by the state Department of Public Safety, the most recent figures available, listed the head count for HCCC at 321, well above the facility’s design-bed capacity of 206 inmates, while the state routinely lists HCCC’s inmate capacity as 226 inmates.

Using the design-bed capacity as a baseline, as the ACLU did in its complaint, would place HCCC’s occupancy at the facility at 155 percent of its capacity, while the state’s higher capacity claim would place occupancy at 142 percent. The ACLU’s baseline would make Maui Community Correctional Center the most overcrowded facility in the state, at 209 percent of capacity, while Kauai Community Correctional Center is operating at 171 percent of capacity.

The ACLU’s complaint also lists Halawa Medium Security Facility plus its Special Needs Facility, Oahu Community Correctional Center and Women’s Community Correctional Center, all on Oahu, as overcrowded.

Kulani Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison 20 miles southwest of Hilo, is operating slightly below its capacity of 200 inmates and the Women’s Correctional Facility on Oahu is at capacity.

The Dec. 31 report listed 110 pretrial detainees at HCCC, 93 of them awaiting trial for felony offenses and 17 for misdemeanors. That’s about 34 percent of the jail’s population.

“Currently, in OCCC there are about 50 percent pretrial detainees. And overall, the entire system has about 20 percent. So, this is a big chunk of the population in jails,” Caballero said.

He noted an increasing trend in abolishing cash bails in Washington, D.C., and several states, with judges deciding whether an individual poses a danger to the public or is a flight risk, and allowing defendants who don’t fit those criteria to remain free pending trial.

The ACLU sued the state in 1984, which led to a 1989 federal consent decree overseeing Hawaii’s jails and prisons. By 1996, the state and the ACLU agreed that the state was in compliance with the federal decree and the court order was dropped three years later.

In news stories going back to 2003, however, the ACLU has complained the conditions in Hawaii correctional institutions that prompted the lawsuit and consent decree were returning.

“The hope is that this complaint will be a wake-up call to adjust a system that is not working and needs reform. And that reform will require us looking at who we are incarcerating, for what, and how long, and making different decisions from the ones that we have been making in the last 30 years,” Caballero said. “… We are asking the Department of Justice to conduct an investigation and intervene if necessary. And we believe it is necessary because the conditions are just so appalling that they violate the U.S. Constitution.

“However, what we’re really hoping to do in the long run is to start a discussion about what are the policies that got us here in the first place, and how do we address those. Because the fact of the matter is that this has been going on for over 30 years. So our hope is that we can come into a more modern vision of the jails and prisons in Hawaii and that we actually address the root problems of incarceration and overcrowding.”

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