Perched on a 31-acre plot of state land in Halawa Valley, tucked away at a far end of Hawaii’s largest prison, the Special Needs Facility is unlike any other prison facility in the islands.

Opened in 1962 as the Halawa Jail for the City and County of Honolulu, the aging facility is now home to only a select group of prisoners — all deemed unfit to be housed at the Halawa Correctional Facility‘s medium-security wing.

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On any given day, roughly 120 prisoners — many suffering from acute mental illness or being separated from the general population as “protective custody” — are housed at the facility, accounting for about 10 percent of Halawa’s population.

Among them are prisoners who have been classified as maximum-custody, the highest of the five security levels.

In fact, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety sets aside a part of the facility for most of the maximum-custody prisoners: “special holding” cells, where they are held in isolation for up to 23 hours a day.

Halawa prison modules1. 16 nov 2016

Maximum-custody prisoners are held in isolation for up to 23 hours a day in the Special Needs Facility.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The arrangement is in stark contrast to how maximum-custody prisoners are typically treated in most mainland prisons, where it’s unusual to subject almost an entire class of prisoners to solitary confinement by default.

But the system has been arranged this way in part because Hawaii, unlike most other states, doesn’t have a maximum-security prison.

Amy Fettig, deputy director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the arrangement is troubling, given that prolonged isolation of prisoners has been shown to aggravate — or even cause — psychiatric problems.

“It raises a red flag for me,” said Fettig, who also directs the ACLU’s Stop Solitary campaign. “Of course, in maximum security, you’d expect more limited movement and more limited interaction with other prisoners. But you wouldn’t subject your average maximum-custody prisoners to what is essentially solitary confinement.”

Not The Only Ones In Solitary

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, says it’s “rare” for any prisoner in Hawaii to be classified as maximum-custody.

Under the Department of Public Safety’s policy, the maximum-security classification is intended only for “exception” cases in which prisoners commit “misconducts in the high or greatest category.”

“The placement in maximum custody,” the policy states, “will be reserved for inmates who have shown through their institutional behavior that they are unable or unwilling to function appropriately in the general population” — including those who are violent, “predatory” or escape risks.

Schwartz says that explains why only 16 male prisoners are currently classified as maximum-custody and housed at the Special Needs Facility. Following individual assessments, the department has placed 12 of them in isolation, which filled up all of the facility’s “special holding” cells. The remaining four have been placed in the general population area.

WCC Windward Correctional/Prison during tour. Segregated inmate sleeps in her cell at Windward Correctional Center. 17 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Solitary cells, like this one at the Women’s Community Correctional Center, are used when an inmate is assigned to “disciplinary segregation.”

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Schwartz is also quick to point out that maximum-custody prisoners are afforded the same privileges — for things like phone use and store orders — as those in the general population.

That’s not something that’s available to prisoners who are held in “disciplinary segregation” at any of the state’s eight prisons and jails — up to 23 hours a day of isolation as punishment for misconduct.

But, under the department’s “disciplinary segregation” policy, these prisoners are not supposed to be held in isolation for longer than 60 days — unless the administrator of the Institutions Division authorizes prolonged isolation in “exceptional circumstances.”

By contrast, the period of isolation for maximum-custody prisoners has no defined end point — the onus is on the prisoners to show, through maintaining good behavior, that the downgrading of their security classification is warranted.

Still, Schwartz says maximum-custody prisoners are “eligible at any time for a reduction in custody level” and receive biannual reviews for possible reclassification, just like all other prisoners.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says that doesn’t change the fact that the use of solitary confinement shouldn’t be applied so broadly.

“You don’t just lock everybody in the dungeon,” Brady said. “Remember, almost everybody will come out of prison someday. And how will people return to the community if they’ve been treated like animals all along?”

Use Of Solitary Confinement Decreasing Nationally

By and large, what most of Hawaii’s maximum-custody prisoners experience is akin to the conditions commonly found at “supermax” prisons across the country.

The best-known supermax is in Florence, Colorado — the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, known as the ADX.

The ADX’s notoriety is due in part to its roster of high-profile prisoners — including Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

But the ADX is also known for its harsh conditions — once earning a moniker, “America’s toughest federal prison,” by The New York Times, which reported the extensive use of solitary confinement at the prison, even among prisoners with acute mental illness.

Still, because of a settlement agreement in a long-running lawsuit, even the ADX is in the midst of easing the conditions — part of a growing movement to decrease the use of solitary confinement across the country.

Halawa prison inmates walk between modules on tour. 17 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Maximum-custody prisoners are deemed unfit to be at the Halawa Correctional Facility’s medium-security wing, seen here, that houses most prisoners.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In November, a joint study released by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School found a marked reduction in recent years in the use of “restricted housing” — being isolated for at least 22 hours a day for 15 or more days.

According to the study, more than 67,000 inmates nationwide were held in restricted housing in the fall of 2015. By contrast, a similar survey in the fall of 2014 found that 80,000 to 100,000 inmates were estimated to be held in restricted housing.

The study attributed the reduction to a “national consensus” that has emerged on the need to reduce reliance on restricted housing. It also highlighted the reform efforts underway in some states to reduce prolonged isolation of even the most-disruptive prisoners.

Many jurisdictions, for instance, have adopted some version of a “step-down” program, which allows prisoners to gradually earn more privileges — and ultimately a release from isolation — by maintaining good behavior.

Others are allowing more out-of-cell time by increasing the opportunities for prisoners to participate in an array of programs focused on problem-solving, community service, anger management, and mental and physical wellness.

Sometimes, that’s achieved through the use of “security desks” or “security chairs” that restrain prisoners so they can sit together and participate in small group programs.

Bonnie Kerness, program director of the American Friends Service Committee‘s Prison Watch Project, says Hawaii ought to adopt similar approaches.

“It’s very hard for you to give me a reason why (isolating maximum-custody prisoners) is not inappropriate,” Kerness said. “If someone has to be separated, then OK, separate him. But treat what’s wrong.”

Schwartz says the Department of Public Safety might decide to adopt some of the approaches used elsewhere.

“We would be interested in incorporating such programs, as well as other programming that promotes the health, safety, security and welfare of the inmate/detainee population,” Schwartz said.

For his part, state Sen. Will Espero, who has long served on the Senate Public Safety Committee, says he’s preparing to introduce a bill or resolution in the next session of the Legislature to review the use of solitary confinement in Hawaii.

“We need to see if in this day and age that’s an appropriate thing for us to be doing,” Espero said. “Criminals must serve their time, but it must be served humanely with rehabilitation as the end goal. We must do what we can to stop the revolving door to prison, and keeping inmates in cages like animals is not the way to do it.”

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