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Hawaii Prisons Need More Thorough Internal Investigations, Commission Says

The state corrections commission encountered an array of problems during facility tours, including some serious safety violations.

The state commission that oversees Hawaii’s prisons wants corrections officials to beef up their internal investigations office after visits to facilities exposed problems ranging from padlocked fire exits to evidence of rats in a kitchen.

Such potentially hazardous conditions could trigger lawsuits over injuries to inmates or staff or the conditions of confinement, according to Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission Chairman Mark Patterson.

Patterson said in a Dec. 5 letter to Department of Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson that there is an urgent need to ensure the inspections and investigation office “be fully staffed and strengthened” to allow the department “to address issues of immediate concern efficiently and effectively.”

Johnson said Friday that “the commission to some degree is right,” but added his department has made improvements in that office recently. Those include adding a new food service inspector to address concerns related to meals.

Many of the issues the commission raised can be attributed to old and deteriorating facilities, and a lack of funding, Johnson said.

“The facilities are aged, they are way past their lifespan, for lack of a better term, and we lack the money to do appropriate levels of preventive maintenance,” he said.

During the past 18 months the commission published a series of reports on its announced tours of correctional facilities, which are generally not subject to much outside scrutiny. Those reports have painted an alarming picture.

Commission reports highlighted problems such as unexplained power outages in portions of the state’s largest prison and failure of a critically important electronic system for storing inmate medical records.

“Year after year we go in and ask for monies for repairs, and we might get 50% of what we ask for.”Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson

Recently the commission also expressed concern over doors that were chained and padlocked at the rear of wooden structures being used as dormitories at the Maui Community Correctional Center. Those doors are supposed to function as emergency exits in case of fire, according to the report.

Tours of other facilities also turned up what were described as “inhumane” conditions at the crowded Oahu Community Correctional Center, and evidence of rat infestation and “abysmal” conditions in the kitchen at the Women’s Community Correctional Center.

Patterson explained in his letter that while the commission found “more than a few safety and sanitation violations,” the commission is supposed to be focused on specific tasks apart from the day-to-day functioning of the facilities.

The commission was created in 2019 mostly to steer the prison system to a rehabilitative and therapeutic model of corrections, and to help the department establish a comprehensive reentry system to reintroduce prisoners to society, he wrote.

While the commission is also tasked with investigating complaints, Patterson wrote that it is the Inspections and Investigations Office that should be doing in-depth inspections and audits of each facility at least twice per year to identify and address health and safety concerns.

“It is not the responsibility of the Commission to operationally fix the issues that are found, although we will continue to follow up on the specific issues that come to attention,” he added.

Johnson said IIO has 10 positions, three of which are vacant. Two employees in the office handle inmate grievances, and another conducts pre-disciplinary hearings for staff accused of misconduct.

Facility inspections of the sort that Patterson wants are handled by a compliance and environmental specialist and a security coordinator, who visit the facilities “regularly,” Johnson said.

There have been concerns about follow-up by IIO when serious problems were discovered, but Johnson said he instructed the inspectors earlier this year to return to the facilities within 30 days when inspections turn up serious violations.

“Does the system need improvement? Yes, but we are working on it because we saw that gap,” he said.

Johnson said he intends to ask for two additional positions for the Inspection and Investigation Office in the next two-year budget, which the Legislature will take up in its 2025 session. A similar request this year was not included in the governor’s budget proposal, he said.

“Year after year we go in and ask for monies for repairs, and we might get 50% of what we ask for,” Johnson said. When infrastructure suddenly fails in one of the state’s four prisons or four jails, that emergency diverts funding from preventive maintenance, which contributes to the backlog, he said.

“It’s almost like playing Whack-A-Mole,” he said. “When an emergency comes up, you’ve got to hit it with the resources you have, and because we don’t have enough resources, it’s hard for us to plan out an effective and efficient maintenance program.”

Source: Civil Beat