Black mold. Dirty air ducts. Broken air conditioning. Breathing problems. Open sores on bodies.
Complaints like those from inmates at Halawa Correctional Facility prompted four state lawmakers and an aide to Gov. Neil Abercrombie to tour the prison Wednesday.
What they learned is that many of the complaints are legitimate. They heard new concerns, too, like cuts to education and jobs programs and changes in grievance procedures.
But lawmakers also found that prison officials are tackling those problems as best they can and have a few complaints of their own — namely, reduced funding that has affected staffing and other budgets.
The prison tour came at the request of state Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees public safety and government affairs.
He brought along vice chair Michelle Kidani, Rep. Karen Awana and Rep. Henry Aquino, who chairs the House committee on public safety. Debbie Shimizu, the governor’s legislative liaison, was also present. Two reporters also tagged along at Espero’s invitation.
Espero and the Abercrombie administration receive many complaints about Hawaii’s prisons and the facilities that house some 1,900 Hawaii inmates in Arizona.
But one email dated Sept. 15, from a California woman who is mother of an Halawa inmate, seemed especially troubling.
She described the prison’s Module B Quad 1 as a “hellhole,” filthy and moldy, conditions that left inmates with breathing problems and “sweating profusely.” Some had open sores on their bodies, she said.
“The men are very distressed that they are being forced to live in such abhorrant [sic] conditions day and night by the Department of Public Safety and the Warden of Halawa,” she wrote. “Please be the bold and compassionate governor that many of us believe you are, and do a safety inspection of HSNF. Please do not delay Sir.”
Similar complaints came from two Module B inmates who agreed to speak with the lawmakers in the presence of two reporters.
Edward Dean and Christopher Grindling ticked off their complaints: a living area as hot as a sauna, a nasty room odor, no ventilation in showers, mold growing inside their cells.
Dean and Grindling had other gripes as well: exorbitant charges for phone calls, bad food, limited access to programs on job training and education.
“Breakfast is donuts and lunch is baloney sandwiches,” said Grindling.
“Phone calls cost $20,” said Dean. “We can’t call collect. We do not get phone cards.”
The inmates also complained about the prison’s grievance process, which they said had recently been changed.
“There’s no due process,” said Grindling.
What about the air conditioning?
“They just fixed it yesterday,” said Grindling.
“It’s been inadequate for two and a half months,” said Dean.
A tour of a cell revealed cracks and caulking.
Halawa Warden Nolan Espinda confirmed that the AC in Module B was fixed the day before the visit from lawmakers.
“AC is a constant problem,” he said, noting that it is the inmates themselves who fix the system, under guard supervision. “Module B especially has problems. The filters were recently changed. The air handler gave us a particular problem.”
Espinda described Halawa, which was opened in 1962, as “antiquated and old,” lending itself to constant maintenance problems.
The lawmakers also learned that the breakfast includes cereal, an apple and milk, while lunch — it was tuna sandwiches Wednesday — came with soup. There was vegetarian fare as well.
What about the cracks and caulking in cells?
Hawaiian Cement, a Halawa Valley neighbor, sets off a dynamite blast one or two times a day and may be the culprit.
“They give us warning,” said Espinda, explaining that the prison feels vibrations from the explosions.
And the changes to the grievance policy?
Espinda said the changes involve having inmates speak with officials that have direct oversight of a problem area — say, about laundry — rather than just file a written complaint.
(Grindling, for example, complains that his underwear is falling apart.)
Halawa officials say the new grievance system is working. Officials said complaints that numbered 8,000 annually just five years ago had dropped to about 2,000. Espinda said complaints are being handled more quickly, such as a complaint about laundry service might be taken up directly with the laundry crew.
Espinda has a complaint or two of his own.
He said budget cuts had affected staffing. He has 325 adult correctional officers, or ACOs, but 32 vacancies.
Halawa has the capacity for 1,124 inmates but presently incarcerates only 1,011 — 885 in the medium security facility and 126 in the high security facility, where Module B is located.
Budget cuts have also led to reduced availability of job-training and education programs.
“There are always two sides to a story,” observed Espero, who added, “I mean, these guys are in prison.”
After the tour, lawmakers said they were generally satisfied with what they saw.
“They didn’t answer all my questions — like why the lights in the gym didn’t work,” said Kidani. “But I guess they have their priorities.”
Several lawmakers said they were aware that Halawa officials might have just been putting on a good show for their benefit — like the fixed AC and the better meals.
And, the mother who wrote Espero and the governor — Diane DiMaria of Santa Cruz, Calif. — has complained about treatment of prisoners at Halawa before.
In 2009, for example, she submitted testimony to the Hawaii Legislature urging an investigation into the state’s contract with the mainland company that runs the Arizona prisons that house Hawaii inmates.
DiMaria wrote that her son, who was then incarcerated at Saguaro Correctional Center and will not be eligible for parole for 120 years, had been erroneously convicted. She called the Saguaro warden a “sadistic bully” and complained that her son had been seriously mistreated.
Espero said it was the Legislature’s job to follow up on complaints. But he also observed that the inmates in Module B, where security restrictions are more strict than in the medium security facility, had a lot of time on their hands in which to complain.
“What else is there to do?” he said, rhetorically.