Citing severe overcrowding at the state’s dilapidated prisons and jails, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii has filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, calling for a federal investigation into “unconstitutional and unsafe conditions” endured by Hawaii inmates.

The ACLU of Hawaii alleges that overcrowding has led to “systemwide deterioration in nearly every aspect of functioning” at seven prisons and jails operated by the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

According to a 29-page complaint by the ACLU of Hawaii, the “erosions” include understaffing in medical services, unsafe food safety practices, unsanitary conditions resulting from a “pervasive lack” of hygiene items, and acute health risks caused by “an aging and ill-maintained infrastructure.”

OCCC. Oahu Community Correctional Center. Kalihi. Jail. 19 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At the end of November, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety housed 1,325 inmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, the state’s oldest jail that’s designed to house 628.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a statement, Mateo Caballero, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii, said the conditions amounted to an infringement of inmates’ constitutional rights: the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantees.

“The Constitution requires that conditions of confinement in Hawaii must meet basic standards of legality and human decency — to correct these violations, the state must take immediate action,” Caballero said.

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, declined Civil Beat’s request for comment, saying: “This matter has been forwarded to the Department of the Attorney General for review.”

Joshua Wisch, special assistant to Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, said his office is reviewing the complaint.

The complaint “makes allegations regarding events that span multiple years over multiple administrations. Reviewing the claims made in this letter will take time,” Wisch wrote in a email. “The attorney general will consult with the governor and the director of public safety and respond as appropriate.”

The ACLU of Hawaii notes that the current situation “mirrors” the level of overcrowding in 1980s, when it helped bring a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that conditions at the Oahu Community Correctional Center and the Women’s Community Correctional Center were “below the standards of human decency.”

The lawsuit eventually resulted in a consent decree in 1985 that forced the state to comply with strict population caps: no more than 1,018 inmates at OCCC.

But the ACLU of Hawaii alleges that conditions have reverted back to “the unsafe, overcrowded and unconstitutional” level.

At the end of December, the department housed 1,236 inmates at OCCC, forcing many cells to be triple- or quadruple-booked — with up to two inmates sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

Caballero called on state lawmakers to adopt measures aimed at reducing the inmate population — such as a noncash bail system, given that more than 1,000 people, including 50 percent of those housed at OCCC, are behind bars awaiting trial.

“Hawaii’s policymakers have long been warned that, without a long-term plan to manage the growth of incarceration, the state could revert to conditions that led to class-action lawsuits and federal oversight,” Caballero said. “It is critical that Hawaii adopt evidence-based reforms to reduce the number of people behind bars. There are ways to make meaningful change that do not sacrifice public safety.”

The ACLU of Hawaii is requesting the Justice Department’s special litigation section to investigate and, if necessary, take a legal action regarding “a systemic pattern causing harm to institutionalized persons in Hawaii.”

You can read the complaint by the ACLU of Hawaii here:

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