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Talk about bad timing.
On the same day that the head of Hawaii’s prison system spoke to state lawmakers about chronic cancellations of inmate visitation hours, law enforcement officials descended on Nuuanu in active pursuit of an escapee with orange hair and a chest tattoo that reads “Lux et Veritas” — Latin for “light and truth.”
Light and truth. Members of the Senate Committee on Public Safety committee appeared frustrated they weren’t getting much of either from Sakai, as he struggled to provide answers that were satisfying to them.
The visitation problems, as Sakai acknowledged, are not new. Nor are the problems with escapees or the smuggling of contraband into the prisons.
“We’ve been here before,” complained Sen. Sam Slom, who said the only way to address the problem was to hold people accountable.
But that’s a problem too, as the union representing adult correctional officers, the United Public Workers, didn’t even bother to accept Committee Chairman Will Espero’s invitation to attend the Senate hearing.
The latest hearing was prompted by reports that weekend visits were canceled at several prisons on Super Bowl Sunday and Mother’s Day. The reason is because too many corrections officers called in sick, so there was not enough staff present to cover security requirements.
The worst problems have been at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi, the same facility that inmate Daniel Skelton escaped from Monday morning. (He was finally captured Wednesday around 4 p.m.) The percentage of visitation-hours at OCCC that were cancelled has grown from 61 percent to 67 percent since 2011.
Sakai and Max Otani, the deputy director of corrections, did their best to explain to Espero, Slom and Sen. Rosalyn Baker the complexity of the issue, and to assure them that the Department of Public Safety believes it’s very important for inmates to have regular contact with their loved ones.
“We’ve been here before,” complained Sen. Sam Slom about prison problems.
If not, Sakai said, alarming tension levels have become palpable in places like OCCC and the Hawaii Community Correctional Center on the Big Island, the other jail with visitor access problems.
Hawaii’s prison system allows an average of two visitation days a week, most of them on weekends.
At OCCC, six guards are required to coordinate the visits and at least one has to be female, to pat down women who visit. The smuggling of drugs, cigarettes and cell phones occurs all too often, especially at OCCC and Halawa Correctional Facility, which is also on Oahu.
If there are not enough guards, visits are canceled. The problem is that, as state and county employees, corrections officers and other staff accrue up to 21 sick or vacation days a year in addition to a generous number of holidays.
Then there is the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires covered employers to provide staff with additional leave for medical and family reasons. Sakai said that entitles prison officers who qualify up to 60 days of leave.
Of the 1,200 prison officers, Saiki said more than half qualified for the Family and Medical Leave Act last year — something that caused many in the Capitol conference room to audibly suck in their breath.
The problem is compounded further by the fact that prison work is hard and a lot of correctional employees are under stress that can lead to ill health. Sakai said the life expectancy for corrections employees in Oregon was just 58 years.
There is yet another matter contributing to all the visitation cancellations: suicide watches and hospitalizations that require assigning guards to individual inmates.
Espero peppered Sakai and Otani with possible solutions, like hiring part-time guards to handle days when staffing problems are likely, using supervised cell phones and Skype sessions to allow inmates to talk to family members remotely, setting up more drug-detection machines to catch contraband and holding more visitations during the week when there is no Super Bowl or Mother’s Day to worry about since both take place on weekends.
Lawmakers were stunned to learn that prison guards are not required to have a high school education.
In fact, this year, DPS accommodated Mother’s Day by holding a special visitation day the Saturday before. And cancellations at Halawa have actually dropped, thanks in large part to renovations that shut down parts of the prison and allowed for the reshuffling of staff.
Halawa also has a new visitor room that allows visitors to meet inmates by talking through glass screens — just like you see in the movies, Sakai said.
On several occasions, Saiki stressed that a major way to address the visitation problem — and escapes, as well — is to improve the facilities, a path the Department of Public Safety is moving forward on. But it will likely require razing existing prisons and building new ones, which will cost a lot of money.
While expressing a willingness to “think outside the box,” Sakai said some of those ideas would have to be negotiated with the union. Espero repeatedly suggested that the power of the union might be at the core of the visitation dilemma.
Sakai said his department is working with the union but acknowledged that his department was not proud of its record with the overall prison situation.
There were more additional revelations at the Senate hearing.
For example, lawmakers and those in the audience were stunned to learn that prison guards are not required to have a high school education.
Legislators also heard from three relatives of OCCC inmates who were very upset with their visitation experiences.
Ruth Bosworth went to OCCC this past Father’s Day, having been assured by the prison hotline that the prison was receiving visitors. Upon arrival, she was told that wasn’t the case.
Bosworth said others who had come around the same time, including one woman who drove from Waianae, were distraught to learn they would not be able to see their loved ones on such an important day. She said such visits can help inmates turn their lives around.
Bosworth and Kelly Cadinha also said they and other visitors had been treated with tremendous disrespect by guards who suggested that receiving visitors is a privilege and not a right for people who have broken the law.
But, as Steven Katz explained, not everyone at OCCC is there because they are convicted criminals. Many await trail and a jury’s verdict.
As a marriage and family therapist and the father of a mentally ill son who was previously held at OCCC over a trespassing charge, Katz shared his anger that no one had been fired over conditions at the prison.