Now it’s official: Hawaii will continue housing hundreds of its excess prisoners on the mainland — at an estimated cost of nearly $45 million a year.

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety awarded a new, three-year contract last week to Nashville, Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit prison company in the country, to house up to 1,926 Hawaii prisoners in Arizona.

The contract, which can be extended twice in one-year increments, took effect Monday and applies retroactively to July 1, when the department signed a temporary extension of the last contract, signed in 2011, to finalize the negotiation with CCA.

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A review of the terms of the new contract shows that little has changed from the last one.

Still, CCA’s revenue will grow under the new contract; its per-diem rate will increase from $70.49 to $71.90 per prisoner, with an automatic escalator clause that guarantees an annual increase of between 2 percent and 3 percent.

In fiscal year 2016, which ended June 30, CCA housed a daily average of 1,388 Hawaii prisoners — about a quarter of the state’s inmate population — at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix.

But the state plans to send an additional 250 prisoners to Saguaro in October, so that a module at the Halawa Correctional Facility can be emptied for about 11 months, while upgrades on electronics and locking mechanisms are made.

That explains in part why the department’s estimated cost for the new contract is based on 1,700 prisoners and amounts to more than $133 million for the next three years.

Saguaro Correctional Center Eloy Arizona sign, entrance into parking lot.
Corrections Corporation of America houses about 1,400 Hawaii prisoners at the Saguaro Correctional Center at a per-diem rate of $71.90 per prisoner. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Hawaii signed its first contract with CCA in 1998, three years after it began outsourcing its prison operation as a “short-term solution to chronic overcrowding.”

The state’s relationship with CCA has since continued, despite a long history of problems — including the murders of at least three prisoners at Saguaro since the prison was opened just for Hawaii in 2007.

Critics have called on the state to negotiate with CCA to beef up the system of oversight — to better guard against contract violations, as well as to guarantee the safety of prisoners.

But, save for the addition of a few minor provisions, the new contract is virtually identical to the last one.

One of the added provisions requires that safety ladders be installed on all bunk beds used at Saguaro.

Two additional updates have been made to reflect changes in state and federal statutes — one increasing the amount of victim restitution to be deducted from prisoners’ earnings; the other calling for full compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

But it appears that the state pushed for little change elsewhere, including the provision for “liquidated damages” — monetary penalties imposed if CCA fails to abide by the contract.

Experts identified the liquidated damages provision as the state’s only source of leverage against CCA — given that contract cancellation isn’t a realistic option — and that it could be made stronger if applied to more situations, such as security breaches and prisoners’ injuries or deaths.

But the new contract calls for liquidated damages to be applied only to one new situation: when CCA fails to abide by the Prison Rape Elimination Act standards.

“They’re really not interested in monitoring what CCA does over there.” — Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons

The other two situations in which liquidated damages will kick in are the same as in the last contract: when CCA either understaffs the mandatory posts or fails to place qualified prisoners into the residential drug treatment program within 30 days.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says the lack of improvements in the new contract shows how little the state cares about the welfare of Saguaro prisoners.

“Out of sight; out of mind. That’s how the department operates — ‘We ship the prisoners over there, and they’re out of our hair. We don’t have to deal with them,'” Brady said. “They’re really not interested in monitoring what CCA does over there.”

In a statement, Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, did not directly address why the department didn’t negotiate for additional conditions in the new contract.

Instead, Schwartz noted that the partnership with CCA provides much-needed relief to overcrowding at Halawa.

“The recently signed mainland contract fulfills our current needs, which is to provide adequate housing and program space for our incarcerated, long-term prison population,” Schwartz said. “Halawa … would be severely overcrowded if we did not have this option in place.”

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