Too often, when Hawaii residents are convicted of crimes, they’re shipped off to serve their time in Arizona and largely forgotten.

The state’s long-standing arrangement with the Corrections Corporation of America, originally intended to be a short-term deal to help cope with a prison overcrowding crisis in Hawaii, is now about 25 years old. Under that deal, about 1,400 inmates are currently serving their sentences in CCA’s for-profit Saguaro Correctional Center.

But as Civil Beat’s Rui Kenaya reported this week, the State of Hawaii’s top corrections and legal officials are doing their best to ensure that what happens in Saguaro stays in Saguaro.

Saguaro Correctional Center Eloy Arizona sign, entrance into parking lot. 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Three inmates have died in the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona. But state officials won’t release public records relating to violence at Saguaro. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Since February, those officials have refused to comply with a Civil Beat request for basic public records essential to understanding the environment in which those 1,400 prisoners are kept. These records include things like policies governing the use of force, disciplinary measures intended to curb violence and the prevalence of violence in the prison.

Not complicated records. And they’re documents that ought to be available for review by members of the public, including the news media.

So the recent response from the Hawaii Department of Public Safety to our eight-month old request was particularly galling. The department will comply, but only if we give them $23,000 and perhaps as much as another nine months to find the records, review them, redact any information the department believes should be kept secret and turn them over.

Just as troubling: DPS’ litigation coordinator, Shelley Nobriga, claims that the department doesn’t have multiple records that were either part of the bid process that awarded Hawaii’s prison outsourcing business to CCA or that CCA is required to provide monthly to the state.

For eight months, officials have refused to comply with a Civil Beat request for basic public records essential to understanding the environment in which 1,400 Hawaii prisoners are kept.

Some might wonder whether the department or its litigation coordinator have simply provided an ill-considered response, given the very clear nature of Hawaii’s public records law, which requires agencies to essentially provide within 10 days the sort of response it took eight months for DPS to give us.

That would not appear to be the case. When a timely response was not forthcoming earlier this year, DPS said Civil Beat’s request was under review by the Attorney General’s office.

We’re left, then, with two alternatives: Either DPS is simply incompetent at managing public records and requests for them, or the department is actively shirking its legal responsibility, aided and abetted by the Department of the Attorney General.

As attorneys with both the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest and the American Civil Liberties Union noted, this one isn’t even a close call. Hawaii’s public records laws require the department to respond in a timely manner and cooperate with records requests.

This issue now involves two important offices within Gov. David Ige’s administration and it’s not reflecting well on the governor. Does he really believe that anyone should have to pay $23,000 to review public records that even the agency says can be released? That doesn’t even get into the argument over whether the documents DPS is refusing to disclose should be kept secret.

We suspect another sort of political calculus may be at play. Prisoners aren’t the most sympathetic figures. Who cares if they’re in danger or being mistreated?

Stalling or dodging or subverting a legitimate request for records related to a major facility important to Hawaii’s corrections system won’t raise many eyebrows with the voters, even though it’s the sort of facility that the U.S. Department of Justice announced in August it is going to stop using due to poor conditions, safety issues and security problems.

DPS should turn over these records without further delay. If it doesn’t, Ige should step in and make it happen.

Episodes such as this unnecessarily undermine the integrity of our public records laws. Hawaii taxpayers, who are paying for those prisoners in Saguaro, deserve better.

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