Last week the ACLU of Hawaii and human rights advocates filed suit against the state and Corrections Corporation of America over the death of an inmate in the Arizona prison operated by CCA.

We decided to dig out the December 2010 state audit of the deal between Hawaii and CCA to house prisoners in the Saguaro facility. You may recall the report by State Auditor Marion Higa was extremely critical of the Department of Public Safety (under the Lingle administration) for the way the contract was handled and overseen.

But we were struck by another section. It described how difficult it was for the state’s own auditors to access public information they needed to figure out whether the taxpayers were paying too much to keep prisoners on the mainland. We already knew it’s difficult for reporters and members of the public to access “public” information in Hawaii. But for the auditor, the state’s own watchdog appointed by the Legislature, to run into the same kinds of problems. Wow!

Saguaro Correctional Center prison Arizona

Here’s much of what Higa had to say on DPS’ stonewalling:

Our audit was marked by numerous roadblocks to our access to information.

Department officials repeatedly attempted to deny us direct access to individuals and documents, define our audit scope, and stop us from conducting an audit at all, among other issues.

At the onset of our audit, we provided our request for information to the department, a standard procedure during the preliminary planning phase of an audit. Our first request for documents was made to the department on June 22, 2010. We repeated this request on July 13, 2010 and July 21, 2010.

Documents were provided piecemeal and oftentimes, had been filtered through management, as opposed to directly by the responsible individual. For requests specific to Offendertrak, the department’s inmate tracking system, the deputy director of administration questioned our need for the information, maintaining that it was not pertinent to the scope of our audit. The management information system administrator was instructed not to meet with our analyst or provide answers to questions about Offendertrak. Instead, all inquiries were directed to the business management officer and the deputy director of administration …

During the preliminary planning phase of this audit, the department director and the Mainland/FDC Branch administrator invited members of the audit team to accompany the contract monitors on their quarterly site visit— from June 29 to July 1, 2010 — to observe the monitoring practices in place. On the second day of observation, the Saguaro warden informed us that he would not allow us to obtain copies of any documents on instructions from the department director. The director questioned our legal authority to proceed with the audit because of the governor’s veto of House Bill No. 415, House Draft 1, Senate Draft 2, Conference Draft 1 of the 2010 legislative session which had called for a prisons audit that included the closure of Kūlani Correctional Facility. The director wanted requests to be routed through his office for review and final release of documentation.

On several occasions, the director screened our requests, raised questions, and denied access in an attempt to define our scope and control our workflow, thus causing delays in fieldwork. For example, on July 14, 2010 we sent an email to the director requesting the documents previously reviewed by the audit team at Saguaro. On July 21 and July 27, 2010 we followed up on that request, and on July 30, 2010, we received notice that the director would not provide the documents because he deemed them confidential and beyond the scope of our audit objectives. We proceeded, anticipating that the supporting documentation would be included in the final audit report by the department’s own contract monitoring audit team that we had been invited to join. We again experienced some delays in our fieldwork because the final audit report was not released until the director authorized the branch administrator to do so. Lastly, towards the end of our fieldwork, the Institutions Division administrator issued an advisory email to all wardens to submit any response to our inquiries to management first for approval.

Higa went on to point out that the auditor has constitutional as well as statutory authority to obtain “foundational” information necessary to be a “fearless watchdog of public spending.” DPS’ efforts to withhold information caused unnecessary delays, Higa said.

Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, the current director of DPS who as interim director in December 2010 had to respond to the audit, conceded in a letter to Higa: “I’m a little perplexed by the lack of cooperation your Team received.”

She promised to use the experience with the audit to improve relations with “your team, the Legislature and more importantly the community.”

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