Here’s the harsh truth about the roughly 900 prisoners released each year in Hawaii: The odds are, more than half of them will end up back in trouble.

According to the state’s latest study, 47 percent of parolees released in 2012 “recidivated” — either rearrested or in violation of parole conditions — within three years of their release. Those who had served maximum terms fared even worse: Nearly 62 percent were rearrested by 2015.

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The grim statistics were compiled by the Interagency Council on Intermediate Sanctions, a state agency created in 2002 with an ambitious goal of reducing the recidivism rates by 30 percent.

The interagency council published the study in May as part of a series of research papers, which analyze the recidivism rates based on an array of variables — such as offender demographics, offense types and how much time elapsed before reoffense.

But one question hasn’t been studied: What’s the effect of housing prisoners on the mainland, thousands of miles away from their family and friends?

In 2014, 67 percent of inmate visitations at the Oahu Community Correctional Center were canceled. In 2015, no visitation was canceled because of staffing shortages.
At the Oahu Community Correctional Center, visitations are allowed two days a week. A number of studies have shown that inmates who maintain close ties to family and friends are more likely to stay out of trouble once they are released. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That’s something that advocates have long been asking. It’s a salient question, they say, given that hundreds of the state’s prisoners are housed by the mainland contractor, Corrections Corporation of America.

At the end of May, CCA housed about 1,400 Hawaii prisoners — more than 40 percent of the state’s prisoners — at the Saguaro Correctional Center, a 1,896-bed prison in Eloy, Arizona.

Some point to a cause for concern: A number of studies have shown that prisoners who don’t maintain close ties to their family and friends are more likely to commit a new crime.

“We’re actually spending millions of dollars to send our guys to Saguaro, and we don’t know how it’s working out.” — Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons

“If you look at all the social science research, one of the major factors that can determine how well people do when they are released is family unity and having that support system,” said Caroline Isaacs, program director of the American Friends Service Committee in Tucson, Arizona. “Everybody from Hawaii is automatically denied that when they are sent to the mainland.”

But the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, which plays an integral role in the interagency council, hasn’t shown much interest in studying the issue on a regular basis. Instead, it punts the task to the interagency council, saying that recidivism research is its domain.

The department “is responsible for the safe housing of criminal offenders … (and it) tracks inmates’ rehabilitation progress while they are in the system. (But it’s) not responsible for the tracking of inmates once they leave our jurisdiction,” said Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman.

Tammy Mori, spokeswoman for the Hawaii State Judiciary, where the interagency council’s coordinator is administratively housed, says it’s open to suggestions for new areas of research, but she’s “not aware of any requests … to specifically track recidivism rates targeting inmates at specific corrections facilities.”

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says all this shows that the state isn’t serious about evaluating its own performance.

“It’s a problem, because we’re actually spending millions of dollars to send our guys to Saguaro and we don’t know how it’s working out,” Brady said. “The lack of accountability is a huge problem. The community ends up paying for this.”

Saguaro Correctional Facility Eloy Arizona clouds and mountain range. 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil beat
A 2011 study found that Hawaii prisoners housed at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, aren’t any more likely to reoffend once released than those kept in Hawaii. But the study’s authors noted that more research was needed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tackling Recidivism

Hawaii began taking a hard look at recidivism rates in 2002, when the Hawaii State Judiciary took the lead in gathering the stakeholders — judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and representatives from public safety and health departments — to create the interagency council.

At the time, the three-year recidivism rates among probationers and parolees topped 63.3 percent, a situation that the interagency council set out to reduce — to about 44 percent within 10 years.

To achieve the goal, the interagency council went on to adopt several national “best practices,” including the use of an assessment tool called LSI-R — the Level of Service Inventory-Revised.

LSI-R is used to assess each offender’s risk of recidivism based on 54 different factors — such as criminal history, education, and family and marital status — so that appropriate levels of treatment and supervision can be determined.

By 2015, the new approach appears to have led to a 16 percentage-point drop in recidivism among probationers and parolees to 47.3 percent, meaning that overall recidivism declined by 25.3 percent from the 2002 level.

The decline was in large part due to a precipitous drop in parolees’ recidivism rate, which went from 72.9 percent in 2002 to 47.1 percent in 2015.

The recidivism rate among probationers, meanwhile, fell much less to 47.4 percent in 2015, only 6.3 percentage points lower than in 2002.

Among prisoners who “maxed out” of their sentence, the recidivism rate remained far higher: 61.9 percent, even though the rate declined from 80.6 percent when the interagency council began tracking it in 2005.

Kat Brady gestures talking about Environmental Assessments Prisons.
Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says tracking the recidivism rate for mainland prisoners should be the routine work of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Over the course of its 14-year history, the interagency council hasn’t directed its attention specifically to recidivism among mainland prisoners.

But, in 2011, the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office stepped in to fill the knowledge gap by sponsoring a study that compared the recidivism rates of parolees who had served their sentence on the mainland and those who had not.

The main takeaway: Among 660 parolees released in 2006, the study found no significant difference in the recidivism rates between the two groups.

Among the 168 parolees who had served their sentence on the mainland, the study found that 53 percent were rearrested or in violation of parole conditions within three years of their release, compared with 56.1 percent of those who had never spent time at mainland prisons.

In the end, the study concluded that the difference wasn’t statistically significant.

In response to Civil Beat’s inquiries, the Department of Public Safety also looked into recidivism outcomes for “maxed out” prisoners and parolees released in 2012 — the same group analyzed for the interagency council’s May study — and came up with similar findings.

The department found that the recidivism rates for the 139 “maxed out” prisoners and the 106 parolees who had spent time at Saguaro were 57 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

Both rates were slightly lower than the overall recidivism rates — 61.9 percent for all “maxed out” prisoners and 47.1 percent for all parolees released in 2012.

Halawa prison visitor area on tour of prison. 17 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A 2008 study in Florida found that prison visitation reduced recidivism by as much as 31 percent. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Skimming The Cream

But there are several reasons why these findings shouldn’t be taken at face value.

For one thing, prisoners sent to the mainland differ markedly from those who are kept in Hawaii.

According to Schwartz, before sending prisoners to the mainland, the Department of Public Safety screens them to make sure that they are in “good health” and don’t pose management problems.

Critics call this “cream-skimming,” a process that essentially weeds out troublesome prisoners who are more likely to reoffend once released.

Indeed, the 2011 study found that the parolees who had spent time on the mainland had “significantly lower” LSI-R scores, meaning that they were considered to be at lower risk of recidivism.

“In some ways, we’re trying to compare apples to oranges, because we’re keeping our worse offenders here,” said Janet Davidson, the co-author of the 2011 study.

“To improve the system, all of our decisions should be evidence-based. That’s just a no-brainer. And, for that, we need to know more.” — Janet Davidson, assistant professor, Chaminade University

It’s also difficult to tease out the effect of being housed at mainland prisons, since very few prisoners serve the entirety of their sentence on the mainland.

The 2011 study found that, out of the 168 parolees who had spent time at mainland prisons, only 22 percent served more than three-quarters of their sentence on the mainland.

Schwartz says that partly explains why the department doesn’t regularly track the recidivism rate for Saguaro prisoners.

“‘Recidivism’ is not solely attributable to having been at Saguaro,” Schwartz said. “The pathway to parole can, and usually does, run through many facilities and programs in Hawaii.”

But Davidson, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Chaminade University, says the situation calls for more research, not less.

“To improve the system, all of our decisions should be evidence-based. That’s just a no-brainer,” Davidson said. “And, for that, we need to know more.”

To state Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, the lack of recidivism research shows that the department isn’t focusing enough on developing strong re-entry programs.

“The fact that they don’t have the recidivism number for Saguaro inmates — I mean, really? That speaks volumes,” Espero said. “They haven’t had the leadership, expertise and knowledge to develop and establish these programs that inmates need. And that’s where we need to improve.”

Brady says the department’s mindset needs to change before that can happen.

“This department is all about incarceration, and that’s what they see their role as,” Brady said. “But that’s not their only role. Their role is to rehabilitate people, so that they can come back into the community. They really need to remember that.”

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