The stories coming out of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility (HYCF) in the early 2000s were horrifying: physical mistreatment of detainees, sexual harassment, homophobic slurs, imposed social isolation and a string of suicides.

Things were so awful at the Kailua prison that some detainees escaped — ironic given that many had been sent to HYCF to flee abusive homes and drug addiction.

With the help of a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Hawaii, the U.S. Department of Justice started an investigation in 2004. The DOJ’s findings, released in 2005, verified that the constitutional rights of detainees had been violated and that the HYCF was in chaos.

That led to a memorandum of understanding between the state and the DOJ in 2006 to address 64 “remedial measures” that arose from the investigation. Per a federal consent decree, HYCF was placed under a monitor for five years.

In May, the DOJ closed its investigation into confinement conditions at HYCF.

So how are things at HYCF today?

“We now have a quality assurance program, and they found that youth feel safe and secure, and that staff was engaged with them,” David Hipp, executive director of the state’s Office of Youth Services (OYS), which administers HYCF. “They also made recommendations, and that is an ongoing effort.”

No Suicide Attempts

Hipp made his remarks at a joint briefing at the Capitol Wednesday held by the state House and Senate committees on Human Services.

Problems remain at HYCF, including overcrowding and lack of manpower on neighbor islands to help coordinate OYS responsibilities.

Hipp said HYCF currently has 56 beds but 82 youth in custody and 17 on parole. That leaves 65 housed at HYCF, with some double-bunking.

“But, facility operations are safe and kids feel well-cared for,” said Hipp. “They are receiving needed services, the education program is considered a model, there are services from the Department of Health and there are a number of programs and activities.”

Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland and Rep. John Mizuno, chairs of the respective Human Services committees (and both Democrats), pressed Hipp on details. Chun Oakland, for example, wanted to know how HYCF was addressing the teen suicide problem.

Hipp replied that is was difficult to prevent a youth from placing a tie around their neck, attaching it to a fixed object and using their body weight to suffocate themselves.

However, Hipp said the facility has installed new ceiling grates that prevent youth from hanging themselves. As well, youth are only confined for sleeping purposes and are checked on every 15 minutes.

“We have not had a suicide attempt in the past year,” he said. “I attribute that to our staff.”

$162,000 To Incarcerate Every Youth

Chun Oakland expressed frustration that HYCF detainees may still lack sufficient activities to keep them engaged.

Mizuno, meanwhile, was concerned that it costs the state on average $162,000 a year to detain each youth.

Hipp replied that he would look at Chun Oakland’s concerns over activities, and that much of HYCF’s costs like salaries and utility expenses are fixed.

Mizuno and Chun Oakland said they would seek a change in the state’s budget to make sure HYCF was adequately funded.

Hipp stressed that incarceration is ultimately not the answer for troubled youth.

“Incarceration does nothing to reduce recidivism,” he said. “If a kid is not a risk to the public, we should try to keep them in the community and work on family strengthening and substance abuse, and not just lock them up. You get diminished returns after six to nine months — you start to institutionalize the child.”

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