I am waiting to see how many visitation days for prisoners and their families will be cancelled this Thanksgiving weekend at Hawaii’s four prisons and four jails.

And I wonder how many correction officers will call in sick the weekend after Christmas so they can shop the post-holiday sales at Ala Moana Shopping Center or go fishing for treats for their New Year’s parties — again, causing the cancellation of prison visit days.

Most of the 1,300 guards at Hawaii’s prison facilities are hard-working individuals who deserve our aloha as well as their professional titles of Adult Correction Officers.

However, the guards who keep calling in sick when they are perfectly healthy deserve to be called scam artists.

OCCC

Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

They are silly people who have created a culture of corruption that costs taxpayers millions of dollars in overtime payments each year, paid to other prison guards who have to work double shifts to cover for the absent scammers.

The Public Safety Department says one of the adult correction officers filling in for absent employees this year took in $104,169 in overtime. Another correction officer at the women’s prison earned $75,573 in overtime. An officer at the jail on the Big Island made $67,462 in overtime.

When guards call in sick, their positions have to be filled to insure the security of the facilities.

And when a lot of the officers call in sick at once, it can be especially difficult when the prisons might already have other officers out on workers’ comp or attending training sessions or temporarily reassigned to suicide and hospital watches. The reassigned officers are not able to perform their regular duties which then must be covered by other guards.

Sick leave abuse scamming has gone on in Hawaii’s prisons for decades.

The scammers not only stick taxpayers with big overtime costs, they also affect the welfare of the prisoners whose visiting days are cancelled.

“It is just plain mean to tell inmates they are entitled to visits every weekend and then cancel the visits, which are their only connection with the outside world, “ says family therapist Steven Katz, whose son was incarcerated on Oahu.

Some people may not care what happens to prisoners but countless studies have shown that regular interaction with loved ones makes the inmates better people when they get out of prison, less likely to commit more crimes.

Also, regular visits from family members make the inmates calmer while they are incarcerated, easier for guards to manage.

One of the adult correction officers filling in for absent employees this year took in $104,169 in overtime.

Hawaii Kai resident Ruth Bosworth, who had a relative in prison, says she was turned away many times when visiting days were cancelled. “This is such a shame.  Family members give prisoners a reason to want to become contributing members of society when they get out.”

Hardly a weekend has passed this year without at least one of Hawaii’s prisons having to cancel visits for inmates because of dozens of employees calling in “sick,” leaving the facilities without adequate security staff to receive visitors.

The correction officers, like all public employees, can accrue 21 days of sick leave each year as well as 21 vacation days and 13 holidays.

When the officers are sick, they call a hotline to leave a message. They don’t have to talk to their supervisors in person.

Correction officers are required to bring in a doctor’s note only after they have been sick for five days or more.

Sick Time Increasing

Public Safety director Ted Sakai says correction officers used to take an average of 28 hours of sick leave a month but now that’s increased to 32 hours or four workdays per month.

Sakai says the prisons instituted an attendance program that seemed to be working to curb sick leave abuse. In four years with the attendance program, 31 corrections officers were busted for seriously abusing sick leave. All of them elected to resign rather than be fired.

But then, Sakai says, the correction officers discovered the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles qualified applicants up to 60 unpaid working days off to treat their own serious illnesses or to care for family members.

In 2009, 62 prisons employees got doctors to certify them to receive Family and Medical Leave Act protections. By this year, the number had skyrocketed more than 1,000 percent to 790 officers.

That means more than half of Hawaii’s 1,300 ACOs are certified for FMLA.

Sakai says, “Once the officers discovered the Family and Medical Leave Act, it neutered the reforms we were trying to make in the attendance program.”

The Saturday after Halloween set a record when prison visits had to be cancelled at four different facilities.

Sakai says many of the officers seeking unpaid Family and Medical Leave genuinely need the time off for their own chronic illnesses such as diabetes and gout or to care for elderly or sick family members.

Saiki says it is extremely stressful to work in the prisons.

I ask him if he thinks some of the other officers are faking chronic illnesses. “I don’t have evidence,” he says. “I will let the numbers speak for themselves.”

Halloween this year fell on Friday. The Public Safety Department says the Saturday after Halloween set a record when prison visits had to be cancelled at four different facilities including the Kulani Correctional Facility on the Big Island, Oahu Community Correctional Facility, Waiawa Correctional Facility and Hawaii Community Correctional Facility.

This was unusual, says Public Safety Department spokeswoman Toni Schwartz. Visits cancelled at four prisons on the same day.

Maybe the guards ate too many Snickers bars and Hershey’s kisses on Halloween and suffered stomach aches, leaving them too queasy to drive to work.

Certainly, some of the correction officers who regularly call in sick on weekends are genuinely ill. But eyebrows are raised when dozens of officers suddenly fall sick on the day of a big sports event.

This year 68 officers at Oahu Community Correctional Center called in sick on Super Bowl Sunday. That is about a third of the 214 guards who were scheduled to work that day.

On Super Bowl Sunday last year, 69 guards at OCCC were “ill.”

Maybe there is a new disease called Super Bowl-itis. The only cure is drinking beer and eating Pringles and spareribs while parked in front of a television set.

There might be another disease called the Mothers’ Day virus. That could be what the corrections officers at the women’s prison were suffering this year when 20 of them (two-thirds of the 29 guards scheduled to work) called in sick on Mother’s Day, canceling the visits for incarcerated mothers with their children.

Maybe the only medicine for the “sick” women’s prison guards was to be with their own children on Mother’s Day, children most of them see every day, never mind the women inmates who get to see their children only occasionally, and not this year on Mother’s Day.

The Public Safety Department, however, points out that not all correction officers at the women’s prison were sick on Mother’s Day; some were using vacation time, others got off because of workers’ comp injuries. And some of the women inmates got to see their children at a special event the day before Mother’s Day.

Good Reasons to Have Regular Visitation

Kat Brady, an advocate for prison inmates and their families, says when prisoners are denied visits with loved ones, they lose hope.

“When prisoners have no hope, their level of frustration escalates, they start misbehaving, making the prisons unsafe for staff members and others who are incarcerated.”

Brady says, “I feel sad thinking of correction officers taking advantage of the family medical leave law, a good law that was intended to preserve the jobs of employees in need. There is no aloha in that.”

One prison official told me the guards who fake sicknesses on weekends are a minority; he estimates only about 15 percent of the state’s correction officers do that.

But he said the scheming behavior has become so ingrained that some of the officers don’t even bother to cover it up.

He says some call in sick because they have taken on second jobs where they must show up to work on their regular scheduled workdays at the prisons.

One day when a prison official called Maui Correctional Center to speak with a guard with whom she had some routine business, the Maui facility worker who picked up the phone told the official, “Oh she’s at her other job.”

Turns out the prison employee was slinging cheeseburgers at McDonald’s during her regular prison working hours. She was disciplined, but not fired.

It is difficult to fire a prison correction officer. Indeed, it takes a lot of reports and prior disciplinary actions to fire almost any public worker because of union protections.

I called Dayton Nakanelua, state director of the United Public Workers, the union that represents the correction officers, to find out what the union is doing to help curb prison guard absenteeism. But he did not answer my email or return my call.

In the 23 years I have covered the Hawaii state government, Nakanelua has never returned any of my calls. But that’s another story.

Legislative Action Needed

State Sen. Will Espero, the chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, says: “I am as frustrated by the absenteeism as anyone. “

Espero has suggested that the prisons hire a group of adult correction officers to come in only on weekends to make sure the inmates are able to see their loved ones once a week.

He has also suggested the prisons offer visits on weekdays when not as many officers seem to call in sick.

Espero says during the next legislative session he plans to visit the prisons himself to talk with the correction officers.

“Maybe some of the non-scammers will tell me what is going on,” says Espero.

Public Safety director Sakai says, “It is tough but we have to try to improve this.”

Besides the attendance program, Sakai has instituted other programs to try to reduce sick leave abuse.

Maybe there is a new disease called Super Bowl-itis. The only cure is drinking beer and eating Pringles and spareribs while parked in front of a television set.

Wardens now check regularly when a correction officers appears to be abusing the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act and ask the officers to bring in a doctor’s note as proof of why their specific illness is requiring so many days off in a row.

The prisons are also beginning two new voluntary health programs to help the correction officers to become more responsible for their own health and to better manage their workplace stress.

In addition, the Public Safety Department is making it more difficult to get hired as an adult correction officer in an effort to find employees who want to work — applicants who see corrections work as a worthy profession, a way to contribute to their community.

Currently you do not need a high school degree to become an ACO, and that will not change any time soon. But the test applicants must take to get hired is more difficult now, and in the future applicants will be psychologically evaluated to see if they can stand the stress of working in the prisons.

Applicants for guard positions will also be required to take a physical test.  Sakai says physical tests for applicants have not been done for the last 10 years.

Frankly, I do not hold much hope for curbing sick leave abuse at Hawaii’s prisons and jails until the current scamming guards all retire.

The scammers are so “sick” and weak and obviously unsuited to work in prisons because of their “illnesses” that most of them should be ready to step down soon.

Then they can rest 365 days a year without ever having to pick up their phones to call in sick.

Prison wire (NO TYPE)

Prison wire at an Oahu facility.

PF Bentley/Honolulu Civil Beat

See statistics compiled by Public Safety officials on cancelled visits and FMLA increases:

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