There may soon be fresh sets of eyes peering over the walls into the state’s eight jails and prisons.

A guard’s fatal shooting of what authorities said was an escaping inmate near the Oahu Community Correctional Center on Friday was the latest high-profile event to occur at the state’s long-troubled detention facilities that are dealing with overcrowding, unexplained inmate deaths, attacks on guards and reports of sexual assaults.

Now the Hawaii Legislature is considering setting up a five-member commission to provide  independent oversight of the Department of Public Safety’s Corrections Division. House Bill 1552 has passed the House and is moving to the Senate where a companion measure, Senate Bill 1424, has stalled.

“You can’t have a system policing itself,” said Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee. “You need oversight … It’s overdue.”

A guard walks a corridor at the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

But will it happen? He isn’t sure.

“There’s resistance from within the system to oversight,” he said.

Friday’s incident in which an inmate who apparently broke out of jail ran free and was shot, is just the kind of thing a commission could address, said Rep. Gregg Takayama, chairman of the House Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

“There was a major security breach at OCCC if an inmate is able to get through a secured door and a security gate without being stopped,” Takayama said in an email. “No one wants to see the loss of life but this could have been far worse if innocent bystanders were abducted or shot accidentally. This is an instance in which an oversight inquiry could benefit all our correctional facilities by determining what went wrong and helping prevent a reoccurrence.”

The proposed creation of the commission comes at the urging of a blue-ribbon task force including judges, prosecutors, parole authorities, criminal justice reformers and Native Hawaiian activists who found the corrections system is “not producing acceptable, cost-effective, or sustainable outcomes and needs immediate and profound change.”

“One of the issues that surfaced in a negative way is the need for more communication between DPS and the community,” said task force member Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii. “They see themselves as walled off — both literally and figuratively. There’s not a lot of transparency about their activities.”

Chesney-Lind said that reports of suicides or accounts of the segregation of mentally ill inmates in isolation cells illuminate what she called “terrible situations” in need of more government accountability. She said these events “reverberate through the system.”

It’s uncertain how much of what the task force recommended will be given the force of law. The state’s two most influential legislators on criminal justice issues — Nishihara and Takayama — were both active members of the task force with a “pretty significant involvement in the discussions,” Chesney-Lind said.

Rep Gregg Takayama during leg briefing on prisons.
Sen. Clarence Nishihara, left, and Rep. Gregg Takayama are pushing for creation of an independent commission to oversee Hawaii’s jails and prisons after serving on a task force that recommended it. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Now they are tasked with seeing how many of the task force’s recommendations they can shepherd into law. Both Nishihara and Takayama have said they are hopeful of passage of the independent commission bill.

“I’m kind of hopeful they will pass this guy,” Nishihara told Civil Beat. “I think we can get the votes for it on the Senate side.”

The task force also recommended the state try to find ways to reduce the number of Native Hawaiians in the criminal justice system; seek to reduce the inmate population; create a sentencing reform commission to downgrade offenses and shorten sentences; create a corrections academy to train workers; improve re-entry programs; develop a realistic plan to bring prisoners back from for-profit prisons on the mainland; move inmates into small-scale community-based detention facilities rather than austere prisons and improve care and provide better treatment for mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates.

Few of these ideas received consideration in the Legislature this session. A law requiring the state to bring back prisoners from the mainland died in committee when Takayama called it “laudable” but “unrealistic.”

Takayama gave the oversight commission bill an 80 percent chance of passage. He added that it will require sustained lobbying by criminal justice reformers and other community members.

DPS officials have presented written testimony to legislators saying they support creation of the oversight commission and have added that that the full costs of creating it should be taken into consideration, including salaries and the expense of renting offices.

Correction: A previous version of this report said the DPS neither supported nor opposed the legislation.

In a request for comment from Civil Beat, a DPS spokeswoman declined to elaborate on the department’s position on Monday.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs staff has recommended that its Board of Trustees support it, and a number of criminal justice reform advocates have endorsed it.

Recent Troubles

If it is created, the commission could find itself with a lot to investigate.

The task force found that a number of recent events underscored the need for an impartial review and investigation mechanism.

In January 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union Hawaii filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging unconstitutional conditions at Hawaii’s detention facilities, including “woefully inadequate” medical and psychiatric care and unsanitary living quarters.

In March 2017, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that 10 women at the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua said they had been sexually assaulted by male and female guards. In July, a Maui jury convicted a guard of second-degree sexual assault of an inmate.

In September 2017, three correctional officers were attacked by inmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center who were, according to the task force, “angry and frustrated over long periods of lockdown due to staffing shortages.”

From June 2017 to January 2018, there were five suicides at Hawaii’s detention centers, the task force reported.

The legislation calls for the creation of a five-member commission with members to be appointed by the governor, the Senate president, the speaker of the House, the Supreme Court chief justice and the chairman of the OHA Board of Trustees. Commissioners would not be paid, but would be reimbursed for their expenses.

Investigative Powers

The commission would employ a coordinator with experience in criminal justice and who has “a firm commitment to the correctional system’s transition from a punitive model to a rehabilitative and therapeutic model.”

The coordinator, who would serve a two-year term, would supervise the operations of the commission and receive “allegations of any violations of the laws of this state or rules pertaining” to DPS. The coordinator would be authorized to hire staff, including a minimum of two researchers and one clerical assistant. He or she would be required to report within 30 days on any allegation of violations of the rules and “whether prosecution for a criminal investigation is warranted.”

Contact Key Lawmakers

And the coordinator could also initiate investigations into any cases where abuses are reported and make recommendations for how to remedy problems that emerge.

The coordinator would be authorized to make inquiries as needed and enter detention facilities without giving prior notice to DPS officials.

The commission would be charged with overseeing the state’s correctional system with jurisdiction over investigating complaints; establishing maximum inmate population limits; working with the department to monitor and review inmate re-entry programs and ensure re-entry programs and supports are operating properly.

According to the legislation, the commission “may hold public meetings,” although it is not apparently required to do so.

The commission would report on its activities yearly to the governor and Legislature.

There would be some daunting bureaucratic hurdles in creating the commission. It first would require two other existing entities — the Re-entry Commission and the Corrections Population Management Commission — to be subsumed within it.

Task force member and reform advocate Robert Merce said the consolidation makes sense and would make oversight of the corrections system more efficient and effective.

But Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, told legislators she fears that trying to wrap two other commissions into a new one could prove unwieldy and burdensome.

Nishihara thinks the biggest hurdle ultimately would be direct opposition from the public safety department.

“Resistance to change,” he said. “It’ll take quite a bit of effort on the part of the commission to overcome resistance to it.”

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