Neil Abercrombie’s New Day plan calls for stopping the practice of sending prisoners out of state.

As a candidate for governor, he argued that the practice sends dollars out of state that could instead be used to create jobs and service opportunities.

“Sending prisoners out of state is also against the basic values of Hawaii, essentially turning prisoners into commodities to be held by the lowest bidder,” he argued.

In a press conference Wednesday, Abercrombie went a step further in his ambitious plan for penal reform.

“I hope everybody knows I intend to work as quickly as I can to bring all prisoners back,” he said when asked by a reporter about a recent lawsuit filed by Hawaii prisoners charging abuse by their mainland captors. “I don’t want to send anybody out of the state — it’s dysfunctional.”

Bringing the 1,939 men and one woman currently incarcerated in two Arizona facilities (the woman is being held in Denver) will require not only new prison space, but comprehensive programs to facilitate the reentry of nonviolent offenders into the community.

It’s a challenge that has vexed that last few governors. Exactly eight years ago, for example, Linda Lingle killed Ben Cayetano‘s plan to build a new prison — a plan that had faced NIMBY worries.

Abercrombie said he felt he had some authority on the matter of prison reform. He is a former probation officer, he worked with the Honolulu Police Department as a Honolulu City Councilman and was a member of committees on public safety and the judiciary while in the state Legislature.

“I will be working with the Department of Pubic Safety and with the Judiciary and with the Legislature to forge a comprehensive and integrated program to deal with the question of incarceration,” he said. “And foremost among my approaches will be to take care of business here in Hawaii. It is dysfunctional to send people out of the state. It costs money, it costs lives, it costs communities. It destroys familes. It is dysfunctional all the way around — socially, economically, politically and morally. And we want to do a lot more in the way of intervention and a lot more in the way of programs.”

Prison reformers like Kat Brady of the Community Alliance on Prisons said she was “heartened that he wants to bring our people home, because we should be taking care of our own rather than contracted people who have no idea who we are. That has been a huge problem.”

But before building new prisons — a goal that Abercrombie repeated just this week — Brady said what must first be done is to look closely at the prison population and separate who is incarcerated for drug and drug-related crimes.

“They are the majority and they are in minimum and community custody, which are the least-restrictive levels,” she said. “Basically, reentry law says people should be back in Hawaii preparing to reintegrate these prisoners into the community. Gov. Lingle had them reintegrated from Arizona, but we know that has not worked.”

But those programs require trained personnel and facilities working in close concert with a number of agencies. And that requires money, something the cash-strapped state has little of.

Prison Population Profile

As of August 2010, according to data obtained by Brady from the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, the state had 5,674 people in prisons and jails here and on the mainland. Sixty percent of the population is male.

Approximately 1,938 men are held in two Arizona facilities, in Red Rock and Saguaro. There is also one woman held in a Denver facility. (Another 325 prisoners are held at the Federal Detention Center at Honolulu International Airport.)

Hawaii contracts with the Corrections Corporation of America, which charges a bed rate of about $62 a day, though the rate has recently increased. That compares with local bed rates that are between $124 and $137 a day.

But Brady argues that’s an apples-oranges comparison. For one thing, the cost does not include a $2.5 million contract with CCA to transport the prisoners by air.

There are costs that come in other ways, too.

The Office of Hawaii Affairs released a study earlier this year that showed Hawaiians are overly represented in the state’s criminal justice system. Because of their cultural practices and deep roots in the islands, the Hawaiian prisoners are particularly ill-served in mainland prisons and thus are prime candidates for recidivism.

Meanwhile, KITV reported this week that 18 Hawaii inmates at Saguaro Correctional Center are suing Hawaii and CCA, alleging that they were stripped, beaten and kicked by guards.

It is not the first time Hawaii inmates have complained of abuse at mainland facilities.

Incidentally, Brady says Hawaii experimented with tent facilities for nonviolent offenders a decade ago in Waiawa, but they were not successful — in part because they were not air-conditioned. The Department of Public Safety is looking at the idea again, however.

Abercrombie Nominee A Former Social Worker

Abercrombie’s nominee to head the Department of Public Safety is Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, formerly acting warden of Waiawa Correctional Facility.

Two years ago she launched an offender re-entry program that the Abercrombie administration says “successfully reintegrated offenders by providing them job experience while they were still incarcerated.” Maesaka-Hirata began her work in public service at Halawa Correctional Facility in 1989 as a social worker.

Brady hopes one of the programs Hawaii considers is one adopted by 14 other states. The process was developed by the national Council of State Governments.

“Basically, they come in, look at the entire system and make recommendations,” she said. “They take money from incarceration and reinvest it into communities where most people are returned. So, if we actually had a network of reentry programs, we could let a whole bunch of people out of prison. We could save a lot of money and promote community safety.”

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author