Bob Merce stood inside the Oahu Community Correctional Center, stunned at what he was seeing.
It was November, and Merce and a handful of observers were touring the crumbling 100-year-old Honolulu jail to assess its condition when they were let into Module 8 — one of three cellblocks reserved for mentally ill inmates.
Civil Beat is examining how the state manages its troubled, overcrowded prison system, which includes four prisons and four jails in Hawaii, and a contract private prison in Arizona.
Inside, Merce found a troubling sight: In one cell, he saw a woman wrapped in a blanket, her eyes completely blank and staring out into space; in the next cell, he saw a woman on her feet, singing and screaming as she danced inside.
Above the cells’ doors were the words written on pieces of cardboard: “Jane Doe.”
Merce understood what that meant: The two inmates were “so psychotic” that OCCC officials hadn’t been able to identify them.
“When you see these people, and how bad off they are, you know they should not be in jail, period. It was awful. I was almost in tears,” said Merce, who serves on the board of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.
On any given day, however, OCCC is teeming with as many as 100 inmates diagnosed with “acute” mental illness, according to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.
In many ways, the problem is a microcosm of the grim reality inside OCCC: The jail is so overcrowded that it has to operate at twice its designed capacity, forcing many cells to be triple- or quadruple-booked — with up to two inmates sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
The condition is a reprise of what landed the state in legal trouble three decades ago.
In 1984, a group of inmates at OCCC and the Women’s Community Correctional Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit, alleging that conditions at the two facilities were “below the standards of human decency.”
The inmates, who were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleged that overcrowding was causing an array of problems: The medical unit was overwhelmed; toilets, sinks and showers were in short supply; and staff shortages led to frequent lockdowns and fights among inmates.
“The overcrowding overtaxes virtually every constitutionally required support system and service and creates a harmful and intolerable environment,” the inmates alleged.
“We really need a federal oversight again. … It’s obvious that the state can’t get a handle on this.” — Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons
The lawsuit eventually led to a consent decree — approved by the court 31 years ago this month — that placed the state under federal monitoring.
Under the consent decree, which lasted until 2000, the state had to comply with strict population caps: no more than 1,018 inmates at OCCC.
But, in the years since, the population has crept back up: At the end of September, the department housed 1,354 inmates at OCCC — virtually the same number as when the 1984 lawsuit was filed.
Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says the time is ripe for another court battle.
“Things are so bad that we really need a federal oversight again,” Brady said. “I’ve heard this from many people — because it’s obvious that the state can’t get a handle on this.”
Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz, who helped bring the 1984 lawsuit, says the state is running out of excuses.
“Their response every time this issue comes up is, ‘Oh, we’re working on it. We have a plan. We’re trying to relocate the jail. We’re doing everything we can. If you sue us, it’s just going to make everything difficult and drag it out further,'” Seitz said. “That needs to stop.”
Under Gov. David Ige, the Department of Public Safety hasn’t been shy about acknowledging the dire state of OCCC.
At an informational briefing in January, for instance, Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, warned members of the House and Senate public safety committees about “the cloud of liability that lies over our head.”
“At this point in time, the (department’s) highest priority is to deal with the jail overcrowding and the threat that causes to taxpayers of Hawaii in regards to possible litigation,” Espinda said.
In a statement, Espinda told Civil Beat last week that overcrowding also overburdens correctional officers, who face “a great challenge to … (maintain) the level of services necessary for us to not be sued by the federal government and possibly face court supervision.”
But the Legislature ultimately rejected the bill when it became clear that the cost would be prohibitively high: nearly $650 million. Instead, it commissioned a study to find suitable locations for a new OCCC.
Still, state lawmakers agreed to set aside $37.5 million in capital improvement funds to expand each of the three jails on the neighbor islands, as well as $4 million for the women’s prison, to help relieve overcrowding.
Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, says the department has yet to determine how many beds will be added at each facility, but the goal is “to add enough bed space to accommodate our current population.”
“We must look at what are the policies and practices that are impacting who is going into our prison system.” — Vanessa Chong, executive director of the ACLU of Hawaii
The lawmakers also signed off on another proposal by the Ige administration: House Bill 2391, which gives Espinda the power to release those who are charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor — so long as they’re not involved in a “serious crime” or have bail set at more than $5,000.
Schwartz says the department has yet to finalize the criteria used to determine which inmates will qualify for release, but as many as 350 inmates could be screened for eligibility, if the program launched today.
But Schwartz cautions that, once the screening is complete, the number of inmates who qualify for release would likely be “significantly less.”
Carrie Ann Shirota, a prison-reform advocate on Maui, says the state should place its priority on setting up similar programs that offer alternatives to incarceration, rather than building a new OCCC.
“Replacing OCCC today, or a decade from now, may temporarily house more people. Yet, it will not address the drivers of mass incarceration and overcrowding,” Shirota said. “If we continue this short-sighted approach to prison overcrowding, it’s very possible that 10 to 20 years from now, the new OCCC will be overcrowded — because we failed to invest in evidence-based practices to reduce the overall incarcerated population.”
Vanessa Chong, executive director of the ACLU of Hawaii, agrees that the state needs to focus on fixing the root causes of overcrowding.
“We must look at what are the policies and practices that are impacting who is going into our prison system as a whole,” Chong said. “Otherwise, we’ll continue in a piecemeal mode — a program here, a program there, a halfway house there. While those will help some, they won’t fundamentally change the situation.”
State Rep. Gregg Takayama, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, says that, while supportive of alternatives to incarceration, he remains cautious about “a wholesale reduction in our inmate population.”
“It’s inhumane to force the inmates to live three, sometimes four, to a cell that’s designed for two. So the status quo is not acceptable to me,” Takayama said. “But my concern is public safety. How many inmates can we safely release to the society without jeopardizing public safety? That, for me and other legislators, is the priority No. 1.”
But Seitz says it’s possible to make significant cuts to the state’s inmate population without sacrificing decades of hard-won reductions in crime.
Seitz points to one example: Since 2011, California has achieved the so-called public-safety realignment — the release of more than 30,000 inmates, under court order, to relieve overcrowding — without triggering an increase in violent crime.
“My concern is public safety. How many inmates can we safely release to the society without jeopardizing public safety?” — state Rep. Gregg Takayama
In fact, a study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that the state’s crime rates actually declined — property and violent crime went down to historic lows; the only crime that saw an increase was auto theft.
“That ought to happen here. We have hundreds of people who could be successfully monitored in other settings,” Seitz said. “There’s no justifiable reasons for locking them up in circumstances that currently exist.”
Merce says diverting mentally ill inmates from jails is a good place to start.
“Jail is no place for someone with a mental illness,” Merce said. “In some cities, the mentally ill are not even taken to jail — they are taken to hospitals where they get help, and health insurance pays for their care. We need to do this as well.”
Merce adds that Hawaii could also learn from innovative programs — such as cash-bail alternatives — that some cities have put in place to relieve overcrowding.
“What I’m saying is that we cannot afford to ignore the ideas that are reducing jail population and jail costs and making communities safer and more humane,” Merce said.
Meanwhile, Chong says the ACLU of Hawaii is considering launching a campaign to build up the support for reform, using OCCC’s condition — and the conversation about its relocation — as a rallying point.
“For so many years, prison reform has been sidelined by all the other problems facing Hawaii, but OCCC has perhaps presented the opportunity for Hawaii to take fresh eyes to all of this,” Chong said. “This might be the moment when some changes could occur.”