UPDATED 12/16/11 1 p.m.

One doesn’t expect Christmas decorations in a prison.

Yet, you’ll find paper snowflakes and stockings in the module that holds 17 female wards at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility in Kailua this holiday season.

Civil Beat took a tour of HYCF on Tuesday, the day corrections officials held a Christmas party for the girls and the 42 boys held there. The party featured a band and the making of gingerbread houses.

Other sights stood out as well: Boys and girls warmly interacted with youth correctional officers (YCOs) and hugged and high-fived the warden.

This is the same HYCF that, only a few years ago, was the source of horror stories: kids physically abused by YCOs, 23-hour lockdowns, religious indoctrination, suicides in cells.

“It was a very hostile place,” said Lois Perrin, legal director for ACLU of Hawaii, who litigated past cases concerning conditions and practices and HYCF.

Last month, state lawmakers received a status report from David Hipp, executive director of the state’s Office of Youth Services, which oversees HYCF. Hipp told them that the institution had made a dramatic turnaround, which satisfied the legislators.

Civil Beat decided to visit the facility for itself to see if Hipp’s report accurately portrayed reality.

There are still challenges at HYCF, the only juvenile jail in the state. Staff, many of them members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers, still take a lot of sick leave. There are vacancies to be filled and not enough female workers in the girls’ module.

But HYCF is no longer a house of horrors.

“Kids feel safe here,” said HYCF administrator Al Carpenter, also known as the warden.

“It’s not the same place,” said Hipp.

Twisting Testicles

There is no disputing that HYCF was a very troubled institution not all that long ago.

Spurred by the ACLU and aided by the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice in 2004 began investigating allegations. The DOJ’s findings verified that the constitutional rights of wards had indeed been violated and that HYCF was terribly mismanaged.

“In particular, we find that youth confined at HYCF suffer harm or risk of harm from constitutional deficiencies in the facility’s confinement practices, suicide prevention procedures, and provision of access to mental health and medical care services,” stated an August 2005 report from the attorney general to then-Gov. Linda Lingle.

That report is replete with documented cases of just how bad things were at HYCF. Here’s three examples:

September 2004: A youth used her bra to hang herself from the bunkbed in her cell. Another youth found her hanging and yelled for the YCO on duty. The YCO arrived at the cell, became frightened, and dropped his keys. A second youth then grabbed the keys, unlocked the door, and lifted up the unconscious young woman. Another resident removed the bra strap from the young woman’s neck and laid her on the floor.

January 2004: A YCO grabbed, squeezed, and twisted the testicles of a youth for at least 15 seconds as the youth lined up to return to school. When the youth sought medical attention, the YCO encountered the youth outside the medical unit, laughed at him, and mockingly asked: “What, you want me to grab your balls again?” An internal investigation of the incident indicated that the YCO had grabbed the genitals of other youth on at least two separate occasions as well.

August 2003: A YCO allegedly slammed the cell door on a youth’s hand, breaking one of the fingers. The youth spoke with a social worker and requested that the social worker contact his mother so she could file a formal complaint. The youth declined to file a grievance stating that he feared retaliation by the YCO. The documents provided by the State did not include a medical report from this incident.

In 2006 a memorandum of agreement between the federal and state government spelled out a long list of remedial measures and quality improvements required at HYCF.1

The federal monitoring ended this past May when the DOJ closed its investigation.

In November, Hipp told lawmakers, “Facility operations are safe and kids feel well-cared for. 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.”

Hipp says there hasn’t been a suicide attempt at HYCF in more than a year.

School With Concertina Wire

HYCF is located near the foot of Olomana not far from Castle Medical Center. Turning from Kalanianaole Highway on to the scenic, white-fence-lined road that leads to the facility feels a little like entering Southfork on the old TV show “Dallas.” There’s even a barn, cattle and gardens.

HYCF itself — several buildings that house three modules for the boys, a separate module for the girls and another building on the other side of Kalanianaole called Hookipa Makai — looks a lot like any public school in Hawaii.

But HYCF also has cameras and concertina wire. What shocks first-time visitors is that the HYCF wards, though only in their teens, are in fact prison inmates.

They wear matching gray or brown shirts, depending on their classification, and are required for outside trips to don the same orange getup that the incarcerated wear from Halawa to the East Coast.

There are locks on every door, and the kids sleep in sparse cells with steel sinks and toilets; there is a cap placed on personal effects. There are frequent searches for contraband, such as for things like pencils that could be used as weapons.

Hipp and Carpenter have extensive experience in running secure facilities in Florida and Louisiana, respectively; Carpenter also worked in Arizona, where Hawaii currently houses some 1,800 prisoners. Both began working in the 1970s and have seen the incarceration system gradually shift from discipline to reform.

Carpenter, with his strong New Orleans accent, could easily have given the famous line from the Paul Newman prison flick, “Cool Hand Luke” — “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Indeed, communication is a priority for Hipp and Carpenter, who both came into their jobs after the DOJ took over.

They have instituted a system called “primaries” — as in primary contact — they say makes the youth feel they can talk openly with YCOs and others about what’s on their minds, including problems. That’s why, says Carpenter, grievance boxes at HYCF are usually empty. (The ACLU’s Perrin said such boxes had previously been stuffed full.)

Under Carpenter, HYCF has done away with use of isolation cells where wards were locked up for even minor infractions. The “code reds” or “code blues” called by staff when events like fights and medical emergencies arise have dropped from as many as 60 a month to just three or four, said Carpenter.

UPDATE

Many of the wards at HYCF are there for violating the terms of their probation, e.g. truancy, running away from home or drug offenses.2 But only a few have committed more serious crimes like breaking and entering — another ACLU concern. Carpenter said one of those kids would be sent to an adult facility upon turning 19.

More questions, and answers:

How do YCOs guard against suicides? Cells are checked every 10-15 minutes. How about visitation rights? Two hours on weekends, more if deemed necessary. Is there a private place to call an attorney? Yes. Educational and vocational programs? Of course, though there could always be more.

ACLU ‘Encouraged’

Carpenter and Hipp were asked whether there was any pressure on wards to follow Christianity, something the ACLU’s Perrin said had been a problem.

No, they replied. In fact, the HYCF library was stocked with a variety of books. (There was only one computer; Internet use is heavily restricted.)

That said, a stack of “Awake!” pamphlets, published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses group Watchtower, was in the girls’ recreation room. Hipp and Carpenter seemed genuinely surprised.

Also, two boys’ cells Civil Beat visited contained Bibles. But that was their choice, said Carpenter.

It’s possible, of course, that HYCF was simply putting on its best face for a reporter’s visit. But that didn’t seem the case.

“Everyone here understands the memorandum of agreement with the federal government,” said Carpenter, who lives in a cottage on the HYCF grounds and drives his red 1965 El Camino between buildings.

HYCF, Hipp stressed, is a place for youth to transition back into society and ideally not to return.

Told of Civil Beat’s tour, Perrin, who has not visited HYCF in several years, expressed satisfaction at what she heard.

“I am encouraged,” she said.

But Perrin also continues to be concerned about issues like the mixing of kids at HYCF — those locked up for truancy, say, versus breaking and entering or having a background in prostitution. Such cases have different root causes and require different behavioral treatment.

“They have been under DOJ supervision for years and they are making progress, but they can do more,” she said. “By exercising great control over HYCF, I think we have an opportunity to make it a model for other states. It’s a time to be innovative.”

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