Adult Correctional Officers at Oahu’s Halawa Correctional Facility are not required to pass through metal and contraband detection machines.
Prison officials say the ACOs are exempt from the electronic searches, saying it is a “negotiating issue” with the union representing the guards, the United Public Workers, although state public safety officials say all staff are subject to searches at any time.
Halawa workers represented by the Hawaii Government Employees Association are also allowed to bypass the detectors, which are located at the prison’s main entrance.
State Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Senate committee that has oversight of public safety and government affairs, calls the policy “unacceptable.”
“That does not seem like sound policy,” said Espero, who is concerned about the smuggling of weapons and illegal drugs into Halawa. “I think the policy should be reviewed.”
Espero and three other state lawmakers learned of the exemption at Halawa, the state’s medium- and high-security facility, during a tour this week.
The visit was prompted by complaints from inmates about mold and broken air-conditioning systems.
At the visit’s end, the lawmakers were told by Halawa Warden Nolan Espinda and Michael Hoffman, institutions division administrator for the Department of Public Safety, that prison staff were not required to go through the detectors.
The officials said the issue was part of a negotiating process currently underway with the UPW and HGEA.
That concerns Espero, who said he has been informed that ACOs may be involved with the smuggling of cigarettes into the prison.
In an interview with Civil Beat Thursday, Espero said he was also concerned about weapons smuggling.
“In Kentucky, where Hawaii women prisoners were housed there, there was a case of where a secretary smuggled in a gun and killed herself,” he said.
ACOs don’t carry guns and other weapons, Espero said, because there is always the possibility they can be overpowered by inmates and have them taken away. And he acknowledged that Halawa has safety measures such as locked-door systems in place.
But the news that ACOs — there are more than 300 working at Halawa, which holds more than 1,000 inmates in its two facilities — shocked Espero.
A message by Civil Beat was left with UPW but not immediately returned.
A spokeswoman for HGEA, meanwhile, said, “This is not in the HGEA contract. For any workplace policies, you’ll need to check with the employer.”
“As part of our policy, all staff may be subject to searches at any time, but it is not mandatory,” said DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz. “If there is reasonable suspicion, we can require searches of all staff. If the policy is changed, we would let the unions know as a courtesy and hold negotiations with them if requested.”
Halawa policy requires visitors be subject to searches “based on reasonable suspicion and consent. Any visitor refusing to consent to be searched will be denied entry and the Watch Captain notified immediately.”
“Inmates do not enter and exit through the main entrance,” Schwartz said. “All visitors, volunteers and vendors are required to proceed through the mechanical contraband detectors.”
The searches can include frisks and pats, strip searches and IONSCAN Narcotics Detection. IONSCAN is a trademark of Smiths Detection, a global technology company that produces a variety of products, including “threat and contraband detection” machines.
According to a Smith Detection website, the IONSCAN can detect more than a half-dozen types of explosives, including TNT, and cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, methamphetamines and marijuana.
Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons — a local initiative working to improve conditions at Hawaii correctional facilities — says she has not heard about much drug smuggling at Halawa in recent years. But she said it has been a problem in the past.
“The (Department of Public Safety) loves to say drugs are being brought into the system by visitors, but how would they know unless they shook down the entire facility?” she said, referring to searches of prison cells. “The should shake down everybody — like ACO lockers and staff areas. Otherwise, they can’t say it is visitors bringing drugs in.”
Brady finds the detection policy for ACOs ironic.
“I know in the UPW contract that somebody can test dirty two times for drugs before they get fired, and that’s kind of interesting,” she said. “If someone on parole has just one violation, though, they go back to prison.”
The policy for corrections officers is detailed in the “Controlled Substance Last Chance Agreement” in the union’s Unit 10 most recent agreement. (UPW has not settled on a new agreement with the state, which expired June 30.)
Halawa has been the site of misconduct in the past.
Two Halawa guards pleaded guilty in 2008 for possessing a device that converts rifles into machine guns.
And three prison guards were fired in 2010 for beating an inmate at Halawa.
Security policies for corrections officers differ across mainland public and private prisons.
Employees at private prison contractor Corrections Corporation of America are required to go through security screening before entering a prison, spokesman Steven Owen said.
Owen said CCA — the company the contracts with Hawaii to house nearly 1,900 Hawaii prisoners in Arizona — typically used metal detectors to screen employees.
Arizona’s public prison system also requires security checks for corrections officers, said Barret Marson, the system’s director of communications. According to Arizona Department of Corrections policies, “Employees, contractors and visitors shall be required to clear a metal detector prior to entering a unit.”
Corrections officers in California’s state prisons do not go through metal detectors, said Bill Sessa, a public information officer.
However, the screening of guards came up during a debate before the California Legislature over a bill outlawing cell phones for inmates. Contraband cell phones had proliferated in California prisons, with some being smuggled in by guards.
“Basically the argument against it was time and money,” Sessa said.
Requiring thousands of officers to remove all the metal from their uniforms — including keys, handcuffs and steel-toed boots — before passing through a metal detector could “grind operations to a halt” and cost the state money, said Ryan Sherman, a California prison guard union spokesman.
California prisons do check correctional officers for contraband, though. Sherman said officers are subject to random searches, which differ in frequency across prisons.
Nick Castele contributed to this report.