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Hawaii Prison Oversight Meetings Are Missing A Key Player — The Prisons Director

The newly appointed director of the state prison and jail system will no longer attend meetings of a commission set up by the Legislature four years ago to oversee the correctional system, and will not send his staff to the meetings, according to a representative of the commission.

Tommy Johnson, director of the state Department of Public Safety, declined to be interviewed about his standoff with the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission. However, his staff said in a written statement that the department will continue to work with the commission and respond to its queries.

Johnson, who was confirmed in April, is the fourth acting or permanent director of the department since former Gov. David Ige and the Legislature created the commission with Act 179.

That law tasks the commission with overseeing Hawaii’s prisons and jails and investigating complaints about the system. The commission is also supposed to assist the correctional system as it makes a transition from a punitive model to a rehabilitative and therapeutic model.

Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Locked cell doors at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, one of the facilities overseen by the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Other Public Safety directors who have held that job since 2019 — including Nolan Espinda and Max Otani — either attended commission meetings remotely or had staff attend in their place. Johnson and his staff also regularly participated this year.

But Johnson has since notified the commission’s Oversight Coordinator Christin Johnson that he will no longer attend commission meetings, and will no longer allow his staff to attend.

“The reasoning behind this was a little vague, but I think what it comes down to is that he thinks there is some type of unfairness,” said Christin Johnson. “When the commission brings up issues or concerns, he seems to think it puts them in a bad light.”

“It’s a difficult complexity of oversight. I understand the uncomfortability of being held accountable, but I think one of the massive benefits of him attending the meetings is he gets to share the department’s side, and gets to share all the great work the department is doing, and really highlight that for the commission and for the public,” she said.

The commission routinely includes presentations by the director on its agenda to allow him to provide updates about the department, “and that will remain on our agenda, we always want him to feel welcome, and we hope he changes his mind,” said Christin Johnson.

She said she and her staff still have frequent contacts with Tommy Johnson and his staff, and his decision to skip the meetings “doesn’t mean that they have cut us off or have stopped working with us.”

In fact, Act 179 requires the department by law to “provide full access to all information requested by the oversight coordinator and commission,” and requires the department to allow the coordinator to enter any facility without notice to conduct inspections.

Christin Johnson took over as oversight coordinator 17 months ago. Since then the commission has publicly reported on issues such as the failure of an electronic storage system for inmate health records, and conditions in the Hilo jail that deteriorated to the point that a state judge described them as “atrocious.”

Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission
The Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission gathered at a meeting in Hilo on Nov. 16, but Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson did not attend or send staff. Commission members are, from left, retired Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra, former Public Safety Deputy Director Martha Torney and Mark Patterson, who is administrator of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. (Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat 2023)

The commission also drew public attention to a lack of functioning video cameras in the women’s prison in Kailua, which increases opportunities for abuse; a security lapse and other problems at the Oahu Community Correctional Center; and more recently, ongoing electrical failures at Halawa Correctional Facility.

The commission was proposed by a prison reform task force that was ordered up by state lawmakers and convened by Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald in 2016.

The task force declared in its final report that “independent oversight is essential because jails and prisons are closed institutions and are not subject to the public scrutiny that applies to most other institutions.”

When Ige signed the bill that created the commission in 2019, he and lawmakers who backed the bill repeatedly cited the importance of transparency in the state correctional system. But the commission has struggled to hire staff and secure funding, and was very nearly stripped of its funding this year.

Daniel Foley, a retired intermediate court of appeals judge, said he thinks it is a “mistake” for Tommy Johnson to skip the commission meetings, which Foley believes will impair the commission’s work.

When Foley was legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii in 1984, he sued the state over terrible conditions at the old Oahu Prison and the women’s prison, and the state ended up under a federal consent decree.

“Part of the problem it was very clear, why conditions were so abysmal — far worse than they are today — was because nobody saw it. Nobody knew what was going on,” Foley said. “The prisons were run in darkness, literally and figuratively. So, transparency is really important.”

Tommy Johnson, director of the state Department of Public Safety. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

Foley supported Johnson’s nomination to lead the prison system, and described Johnson as an honest and committed public servant.

But Foley said Johnson should “let the public watch the discussion, let the Legislature and the governor make ultimate decisions. Stonewalling the commission I just don’t think is a good idea.”

As an independent body exercising oversight, “their role is to be critical, and sometimes the department’s going to be defensive, but that’s the nature of the beast,” he said.

The Department of Public Safety said in a written statement that Tommy Johnson submitted a brief written report to the commission for its November meeting, but informed the commission that the department “will not have representation moving forward.”

“He let them know that he remains available to the commission and will respond to any questions they have and continue to facilitate tours and other events within the correctional facilities,” the statement said.

Christin Johnson said the commission meetings are one of the few opportunities that the families of prison inmates have to raise concerns about the system. They did so at past meetings, and “Tommy has addressed that during the meeting, which was then extremely appreciated.”

“I think that it really benefited Tommy when he would show up because he was able to show face, he was able to show that he cares about the issues being presented, he was able to show the plans he is making to address those issues and concerns,” she said.

Source : CivilBeat