In her first debate with Donald Trump last month, Hillary Clinton broached a subject that’s rarely brought up during presidential elections: for-profit prisons.

“I’m glad that we’re ending private prisons in the federal system,” the former secretary of state said. “I want to see them ended in the state system. You shouldn’t have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans.”

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Clinton’s comment was in reference to the U.S. Justice Department‘s decision in August to phase out the use of for-profit prisons by the Federal Bureau of Prisons — a move that will affect some 20,000 federal inmates.

The department’s decision has since had a cascading effect: Stock prices of for-profit prison companies plunged, a number of irate stockholders have filed class-action lawsuits and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is also considering whether to adopt a similar policy.

Gov. David Ige
As Gov. David Ige sees it, Hawaii has no practical options other than continuing to use for-profit prisons on the mainland to deal with prison overcrowding here. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Prison-reform advocates are hoping that Clinton’s comment — before an estimated 84 million viewers — will build on the momentum and encourage the states to follow suit.

In fact, a handful of states have been doing just that — including Colorado, which has shut down four for-profit prisons since 2009, and Mississippi, which closed a violence-plagued prison last month, even though the state is still footing the bill for its construction.

But it’s unclear whether other states will begin shifting in the same direction, given that for-profit companies are deeply entrenched in prison systems at the state level.

Hawaii’s situation is a case in point: In July, the state awarded a new, three-year contract 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.

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

That’s about a quarter of the state’s inmate population — the fourth highest rate in the country, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In a statement, Gov. David Ige told Civil Beat last week that the state’s eight prisons and jails are so overcrowded that — at least for the time being — he couldn’t “rule out the use of private prison facilities.”

“The practical reality is that there is a significant shortage of prison bed spaces in Hawaii,” Ige said. “We have an obligation to treat our prisoners humanely and in a way that protects their rights. Halawa Correctional Facility is currently operating at maximum capacity and has been able to avoid dangerous levels of overcrowding because the state has the option of sending inmates to the contracted facility in Arizona.”

During the first presidential debate last month, Hillary Clinton took a hardline stance on the for-profit prison industry. Flickr/Keith Kissel

How Other States Reduced Prison Populations

Hawaii’s dilemma is in stark contrast to what Colorado has been able to do since 2007, when it created a nonpartisan task force, called the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, to reform the state’s sentencing laws.

The 27-member task force — made up of legislators, law enforcement officials, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and victims’ advocates — has been meeting every month to come up with an array of policy recommendations for the Legislature, such as an overhaul of the state’s Rockefeller-era drug laws.

The efforts have paid dividends: The state’s prison population dropped by more than 3,000 from the high of 22,980 in 2010 to 19,600 in June 2016.

With less need for prison beds, the state has shut down four of seven for-profit prisons during the past seven years. The latest to be closed was the CCA-run Kit Carson Correctional Center, a medium-security prison that Denver’s alt-weekly newspaper Westword once dubbed as “McPrison.”

In Mississippi, meanwhile, the state’s prison population has similarly dropped — by about 10.5 percent since 2011.

The decline was driven in part by the passage of House Bill 585, a massive 2014 law that, among other things, gave judges more discretion over sentencing and reserved prison space for “violent and career offenders.”

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, which helped craft the bill, the measure is projected to save the state $266 million over 10 years.

With fewer inmates behind bars, the state chose to shut down the Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, a for-profit youth prison plagued for years by violence and legal fights over deplorable conditions.

That’s despite the fact that, according to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper, the state’s taxpayers are still on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in debt on Walnut Grove.

Abercrombie signs JRI bills
In June 2012, Neil Abercrombie, who was governor at the time, signed into law two bills that promised a sweeping overhaul of Hawaii’s criminal justice system. YouTube

Why Hawaii Has Come Up Short

Four years ago, Hawaii adopted the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, an “evidence-based” measure similar to the reform efforts underway in Colorado and Mississippi.

According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which provided technical assistance, the JRI held a lot of promise for Hawaii: By shifting resources to efforts that promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism, the state could slash its inmate population by more than 1,000 by the end of fiscal year 2018 — enough to bring back a majority of prisoners from the mainland.

But, as Civil Beat has reported, the JRI has so far failed to achieve its projected impacts. As of Sept. 26, the state still housed 5,836 inmates, only 224 fewer than when the JRI was adopted in June 2012.

“Pixies are not going to write the kind of reports that we need if this state really wants to make any progress.” — Meda Chesney-Lind, member of the Correctional Justice Task Force

That’s largely because the state has fallen short on realizing some of the key goals under the JRI, such as reducing the length of pretrial inmates’ stay in jail and releasing more prisoners on parole.

Meanwhile, the Legislature adopted a resolution in April to create the Correctional Justice Task Force, giving it a broad mission to “study effective incarceration policies” in other states.

In a way, the 11-member task force, headed by Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael Wilson, is a reprise of what was known as the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which spent seven months in 2011 to come up with policy recommendations for the JRI.

Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii who heads the task force’s education subcommittee, pointed out that the Legislature didn’t allocate any funds for the task force, severely undercutting its potential.

“The kind of data analysis and research that has to happen requires resources,” said Chesney-Lind. “Volunteer members will do what we can, but we all have other jobs and other responsibilities. Pixies are not going to write the kind of reports that we need if this state really wants to make any progress.”

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