With each new story about Hawaii’s management of its prison system and oversight of its relationship with private mainland prisons, we have new and growing concerns over how little we know about these facilities — and how much we’re prevented from knowing by the State of Hawaii.

In recent weeks, Civil Beat’s Rui Kaneya has uncovered, among other things, the involvement of a questionable subcontractor on the planning and design work for a new Oahu Community Correctional Center. Louis Berger of New Jersey has a history of shady dealings that in recent years have resulted in fines totaling more than $90 million over allegations of fraud and bribery. Architects Hawaii, which brought on Berger, won’t comment on the subcontractor, which stands to earn at least $1.3 million on this job.

Kaneya also reported in late August on the shocking level of secrecy allowed in legal settlements involving the Corrections Corporation of America, the mainland prison company whose private facilities hold about 1,400 Hawaii prisoners in Arizona at any given time. The state agreed to an indemnity clause in its deal with CCA that neatly removes the legislative oversight brought to bear on legal settlements involving Hawaii prisons and other state offices under the guise that CCA is liable for all litigation costs and attorney fees.

Details regarding Hawaii prisons and prisoners, both here and on the mainland, are so difficult to come by, they might as well be kept behind razor wire like this that keeps Hawaii prisoners in place.
Details regarding Hawaii prisons and prisoners, both here and on the mainland, are so difficult to come by, they might as well be kept behind razor wire like this that keeps Hawaii prisoners in place. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That sort of secrecy and lack of oversight has unfortunately become a recurring theme for a wing of state government that gets far less attention and scrutiny than it should.

Even in the best of circumstances, voters and taxpayers typically don’t care much about prisons and prisoners. When both are conveniently thousands of miles away, the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is sadly operative and we certainly see that dynamic at play in the CCA relationship.

For years, state lawmakers have deferred any meaningful efforts to muster the political will let alone the money to replace the decrepit, 100-year-old OCCC or make any meaningful advances on efforts to community programs or alternatives that would keep people out of prison.

And when things go bad for any of those inmates in Arizona, it can be difficult if not impossible to find out what’s gone wrong and what’s being done to correct any problems.

Both CCA and the state Department of Public Safety refuse to release any data related to lawsuits filed by Hawaii prisoners and their families and CCA employees — even though that information is already shared between the contractor and DPS — with the company calling it “proprietary and confidential.”

Confidentiality clauses seem to be the rule rather than the exception with CCA cases. Plaintiff’s attorneys can balk at the secrecy requirements, but as one told Kaneya, “agreeing to confidentiality helps move the cases forward.”

State lawmakers have deferred any meaningful efforts to muster the political will leta lone the money to replace the decrepit, 100-year-old OCCC.

That sort of secrecy gives CCA little incentive to change any practices that may have led to the complaint or lawsuit and gives taxpayers no information on how its state government is addressing incarceration issues on its behalf. That latter point is a particularly big problem, according to Paul Wright, director of the Lake Worth, Fla.-based Human Rights Defense Center, which has challenged CCA’s confidentiality provisions in Texas, Tennessee and other jurisdictions in recent years.

“The thing to remember is that every penny these private prison companies get is taxpayer money,” Wright said. “They have no private customers. Every penny is from taxpayers somewhere. And I think the public has the right to know how it’s costing us.”

All of this, of course, is unfolding in an environment in which the U.S. Justice Department recently decided to end its use of private prisons for federal inmates. Now, the Department of Homeland Security is evaluating whether it should follow suit with its immigration detention centers, with a report expected by the end of November.

As we said last month, the Justice Department’s action alone should compel the State of Hawaii to examine whether there is an opening for Hawaii to bring new accountability to its relationship with CCA, given the issues raised by Justice — uncertainty around cost savings and inferior levels of safety, security, services, programs and resources.

With new information emerging, however, DPS and Gov. David Ige must move beyond simply re-examining its contract with CCA.

First, DPS must bring on independent monitors at the prisons where Hawaii inmates are incarcerated in Arizona. Those monitors’ work must be made public in its entirety, without the extensive redactions that obviate any ability to hold DPS and CCA accountable. Civil Beat has currently been given records for only one “sample month” of that work rather than what we requested — the totality of monthly monitor records that span two years. Unacceptable.

Second, state lawmakers must be ready with draft legislation in January that limits confidentiality in the DPS-CCA relationship and that allows more to be known regarding both the services CCA is providing Hawaii taxpayers and any problems Hawaii inmates are encountering in CCA custody.

Lastly, the state Department of the Attorney General must look into the design contract for replacement of the OCCC. Specifically, the AG must look at whether there are any issues that would prevent Louis Berger from participating in the OCCC design project, given its troubling track record in other government jobs.

DPS must also make details of its OCCC design project publicly available, including information on subcontractors, their pay and their performance. Contractors who don’t want to be held accountable for their work should look elsewhere for business. We’re sure that there are others who can provide the services that Louis Berger has agreed to perform while meeting a level of accountability that taxpayers have every right to expect.

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