When Hannibal Lecter first meets Clarice Starling in the 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs,” the cannibalistic serial killer inhales deeply through his nostrils and tells the young FBI agent what brand of perfume she is wearing.1

The scene is set in prison, and bars separate Lecter and Starling. The two can see, hear and smell each other — practically reach through the bars.

“Silence of the Lambs” is fiction, of course, and the director milks the scene for all its drama.

A recent tour of the real thing — Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu — has some drama all its own, far less sensational than a Hollywood film but still of useful insight into Hawaii’s troubled criminal justice system.

  1. An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the film came out in 1988.

Prison in Context

The occasion to tour Halawa came at the request of state lawmakers who wanted to examine in person recent complaints from inmates.

As Civil Beat reported, they discovered that there are problems with mold and air conditioning at the 50-year-old facility. Prison officials also shared their concerns about budget cuts that had affected staffing.

To their dismay, the lawmakers also found out that, unlike visitors, guards and other staff at Halawa are not required to pass through metal and contraband detectors.

Halawa and other facilities — the state’s Department of Public Safety oversees three prisons and four jails across the state — have had their share of problems over the years.

The biggest is overcrowding. An audit released in December said Hawaii can’t make serious progress on solving the problem until it fully understands how much it costs to incarcerate inmates.

Meanwhile, Gov. Neil Abercrombie wants to bring all Hawaii prisoners housed in Arizona prisons back home. His administration’s Justice Reinvestment program — a data-driven approach to reducing corrections spending and decreasing crime — will present recommendations to the Legislature in January.

In his New Day vision for the state, Abercrombie — a former parole officer — calls for the building of new prisons (note the plural). But past proposals have encountered NIMBY resistance. There are also funding challenges.

Bars and Wire

Unlike the Oahu Community Correctional Center and the Women’s Community Correctional Center, which are situated along major thoroughfares, Halawa Correctional Facility is located at the back of Halawa Valley, an industrial and warehouse area.

Halawa currently holds 1,011 inmates but has the capacity for 113 more. (The nearly 1,900 Hawaii inmates in Arizona are from Halawa.) The majority of inmates are housed in the medium-security facility, which was built in 1987.

The lawmakers’ visit was to the high-security area — aka “special needs” — that was built in 1962 and currently houses 126 prisoners. The DPS website says the special needs is for “maximum and closed custody inmates, inmates with severe/chronic mental illness who cannot be placed in the general population and inmates who require protective custody.”

Prisoners are escorted to high security in aging Chevy vans (there’s no AC) with bars on the windows between the driver and passengers.

“They break down a lot,” the driver explained.

On the way, lawmakers drove by three tall fences topped with concertina wire.

The radio in one of the vans was tuned to 98.5 FM, which broadcasts “island style” music and reggae. It played “Pride” by the local group Hoonua.

Eastside, Westside, anyside, everyside

Doesn’t matter anyway cuz we all got Hawaiian Pride.

Native Hawaiians make up nearly 40 percent of the population in Hawaii’s prisons and jails as well as the highest percentage of people incarcerated in out-of-state institutions. They also receive longer prison sentences and are sentenced to longer probation terms than most other racial or ethnic groups.

Two Inmates

Halawa’s high-security facility has three modules presently holding between 25 and 48 inmates each, and a special holding area with 12 cells that currently holds eight. (More on special holding later.)

Visitors are escorted as controlled groups: When entering secure areas, the door is locked once everyone has passed through, and only then is the next door unlocked.

The four lawmakers along with an aide from the governor’s office and two reporters were escorted by five people: Warden Nolan Espinda, Deputy Director of Corrections Joe Booker, Institutions Division Administrator Michael Hoffman, Acting Head of Offender Management Program Shelley Nobriga and DPS Public Information Officer Toni Schwartz.

Sections of hallways were poorly lit, and mold and dust were visibile on ceiling vents. There were offices marked “Barber,” “Dentist,” “Psychiatrist,” “Library” and so forth, but they were all empty during this visit.

The warden explained that budget cuts have led to cutbacks in inmate programs. Visitation times are more limited in high security than in medium security.

The lawmakers were escorted to Module B, where most of the 12 cells had been emptied for the visit. It is constructed of cement walls and steel doors and tables. It smelled like a locker room.

The group was led into one of the cells, but the light did not work. It was light enough, however, to make out magazine photos of nude women on the walls. The group was then showed another cell where the light was working. The cells are not much bigger than a walk-in closet. The toilets are made of steel.

Two inmates, Edward Dean and Christopher Grindling, had agreed to be interviewed by the lawmakers and reporters. The warden and other officials were asked by a state senator to leave the module, but three guards remained.

For the next 30 minutes, Dean and Grindling talked about their woes — the mold, the broken AC, lousy food, expensive phone calls, inadequate grievance policies, etc. It was clear both men had spent a lot of time compiling their lists.

Dean has been in prison for 12 years. He said that he was imprisoned for shooting someone, but he said it was in self-defense and that evidence in his trial was withheld.

Grindling has been in nine years for a drug violation, but he said he has DNA evidence to prove his innocence. He was moved into the high-security facility about seven weeks ago because, he said, officials said he tried to incite a riot — something Grindling said isn’t true. He has requested a pardon from Hawaii’s governor.

The men spend 16 hours of their day in their cells. Both mentioned their moms and a desire to have more visitation and recreational time.

One of the three guards, a younger man, stared quietly while the inmates spoke. He had Pacific Islander tattoos on his arm. Another guard, older, shifted back and forth on his feet.

23 Hours in a Cell

The starkest area of Halawa high security is the special holding area — that is, the special holding area that is in the special needs facility. It is where inmates requiring maximum custody are held, and where Warden Espinda forbids photography.

The eight men currently in special holding are locked down 23 hours of each day in their solitary cells. Only one hour is allowed in a nearby recreation area, and the hour is spent alone.

Some of the inmates stared at the visiting lawmakers through narrow cell windows. They could not hear what was being said about them, could not smell the women’s perfume.

(Nobriga, the offender management official, said that the only visitors to special holding are social and psychiatric workers, none female.)

Seven of the eight inmates are in special holding for misbehavior; Halawa officials have the authority to impose disciplinary measures, usually for 30-day spells.

The other inmate, however, had been in special holding for 10 years.

When a senator expressed to the warden his concern that such isolation might make things worse for prisoners in terms of rehabilitation, Espinda replied that public safety was the paramount concern. In the case of the inmate in his 10th year, Espinda said he exhibits a chronic pattern of assault.

But the warden also said that mental health officials have the authority to override a prison official if they determine an inmate is “deteriorating.”

The lawmakers asked to see the recreation area for special holding. They were led into a walled-off area not much larger than a basketball half-court.

The recreation area’s ceiling was caged in, but it allowed in the sun and views of the sky and the top of a valley ridge. The only other life forms in sight were weeds growing through floor cracks.

“Is this where McGarret got stabbed?” Espinda asked his staff, referring to the recent episode of “Hawaii Five-0” filmed at Halawa.

That was in another part of the prison, he’s told.

Hollywood and prisons.

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