Hawaii lawmakers advanced a bill Friday that would significantly dial back the use of prolonged segregated confinement at the state’s eight prisons and jails.

Under Senate Bill 603, the use of segregated confinement would be reserved only for inmates who are found guilty of “an offense involving violence, escapes or attempts to escape” or those who pose “a serious threat to institutional safety.”

The bill would also dramatically reduce the length of “administrative” and “disciplinary” segregation — the two ways in which Hawaii inmates can end up in a cell the size of a parking space for up to 23 hours a day, allowed out only for shower and brief exercise.

Solitary cells, like this one at the Women’s Community Correctional Center, are used when an inmate is assigned to “administrative” or “disciplinary” segregation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Under the state’s current policy, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety can hold inmates in administrative segregation when their presence in the general population poses an “immediate threat” to safety or compromises the facility’s security. But the period of isolation has no defined end point; in theory, the department can hold inmates in isolation indefinitely.

The bill would prohibit the department from holding inmates in administrative segregation for longer than 14 days in any given 30-day period.

The current policy already limits the use of prolonged disciplinary segregation, but the department can still hold inmates in isolation for longer than 60 days in “exceptional circumstances.”

Under the bill, the department would be prohibited from holding inmates in disciplinary segregation for longer than 60 days in any given 180-day period.

The bill would also direct the department to exhaust “all other less restrictive means of intervention” before isolating the “vulnerable population” — inmates who are younger than 21 or older than 65, pregnant or disabled, suffering from mental illness, or “perceived to be” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.”

Bill Doesn’t Apply To Inmates In Arizona

Civil Beat has been reporting on the use of prolonged segregated confinement and how it impacts Hawaii inmates in the ongoing series, “Hawaii Behind Bars.”

In July, we revealed that the Department of Public Safety’s policy doesn’t apply to the operation at the Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison where about 1,700 Hawaii prisoners are housed.

Instead, the state’s mainland contractor, CoreCivic — formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America — is allowed to set its own policy on segregated confinement at Saguaro.

Under CoreCivic’s policy, any Hawaii inmate who is found guilty of an offense that poses “a threat to the safe and orderly operation of the facility” can end up in isolation for weeks, or months, at a time — up to 30 days for each offense.

In December, we also reported that the department holds most maximum-custody prisoners in isolation by default — simply because the state has no maximum-security prison to house them.

SB 603 addresses neither issue.

Even so, prison-reform advocates have hailed the bill as “a step in the right direction to reform (the) inhumane practice.”

The bill, however, has faced fierce opposition from the department and the union that represent correctional officers.

“Administrative and disciplinary segregation are actions ripe for abuse, and the impacts of any such abuse can be harmful and long-lasting.”

In his written testimony, Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, called the bill “a solution to a problem that does not exist,” noting that the state’s policy was overhauled just three years ago to put in place “the proactive and protective measures proposed in this measure.”

“The appropriate steps to comply with updated, constitutionally compliant practices on the segregation of inmates were fully vetted, and, as such, our current status absolutely does not require this statutory action,” Espinda wrote.

For his part, Dayton Nakanelua, state director of the United Public Workers, took issues with one provision in the bill that calls for training of correctional officers to develop “necessary skills for protecting the mental and physical health of inmates held in isolation.”

“Training … requires negotiation with the union,” Nakanelua wrote. “Accordingly, training should cease immediately until negotiations are concluded and mutual agreement is achieved.”

Despite the opposition, the Senate Public Safety Committee endorsed the bill two weeks ago, concluding that “administrative and disciplinary segregation are actions ripe for abuse, and the impacts of any such abuse can be harmful and long-lasting.”

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor followed suit Friday, sending the bill for a vote on the Senate floor.

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