Days after critics called for a federal probe into “unconstitutional” conditions at the state’s prisons and jails, Hawaii Department of Public Safety officials fielded questions from state lawmakers about the governor’s budget proposal that offers little in the way of quick solutions.

In an hourlong briefing Thursday, Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, told members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee that the department was working “feverishly” to tackle overcrowding, which the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii had identified as at the heart of woeful confinement conditions.

In a complaint filed Friday, the ACLU of Hawaii asked the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation into what Hawaii inmates endure at seven of the state’s prisons and jails, saying that the conditions amounted to an infringement of their constitutional rights.

Department of Public Safety budget briefing
Nolan Espinda, the director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, fields questions about the governor’s budget request Thursday. Rui Kaneya/Civil Beat

The problem is particularly acute at the state’s four jails, which were operating at more than double their designed capacity at the end of December.

“The Constitution requires that conditions of confinement in Hawaii must meet basic standards of legality and human decency — to correct these violations, the state must take immediate action,” Mateo Caballero, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii, said in a statement.

Espinda pointed out that the department’s $655 million budget request for the next two fiscal years includes $9 million in capital improvement funds to expand the capacity of the Women’s Community Correctional Center.

If approved, the expansion will allow the department to divert about 140 female prisoners from the Oahu Community Correctional Center, Espinda said.

Still, immediate reductions in overcrowding appear unlikely under the department’s plans.

For one thing, the department has not even started on the expansion of three jails on the neighbor islands, a project that received $37.5 million in capital improvement funds from the Legislature last year.

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, said the department is still working to have the funds released by the Hawaii Department of Accounting and General Services.

The department has also yet to launch a new initiative under Act 217 that gives Espinda the power to release those charged with, or convicted of, misdemeanors.

And any new request for capital improvement funds to finance OCCC’s relocation isn’t expected for weeks.

The department is in the process of finalizing a study — to be released Feb. 1 — that examines what it will take to build OCCC’s replacement, which could hold anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 inmates.

Espinda said the department is working to narrow the number of potential sites for the relocation from 11 to no more than four.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chairs the committee, took Espinda to task for extensive uses of overtime at four jails. The practice resulted in estimated payments of nearly $10 million during the past two years, accounting for about 11 percent of salary allotment.

Tokuda pointed out that the department’s budget request had allocated no money to cover overtime, except for $530,000 for OCCC.

“If you don’t budget it, we can’t even begin to consider a discussion on paying overtime,” Tokuda said.

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