Extreme overcrowding was one of the factors that led 21 pretrial detainees to start a riot at the Maui Community Correctional Center on Monday, said Nolan Espinda, director of the Department of Public Safety.
But the problem is far from limited to Maui.
Five of the state’s nine detention facilities are currently over capacity, according to a department report, and all but one have operational capacities beyond what they were originally designed for.
They are filling up not just with convicted criminals, but defendants awaiting trials.
In February, more than 44 percent of the total population in Hawaii’s four jails were pretrial detainees.
“There was a riot because of the unconstitutional conditions people are forced to live in,” said inmate advocate Kat Brady.
The 21 pretrial detainees were transferred Thursday to Halawa Correctional Facility, which typically houses long-term inmates. It already had 695 inmates, below the facility’s operating capacity of 992.
There is no timeline for when, or if, they might return to Maui. Espinda said the department is working with the courts on video conferencing to avoid travel back and forth between the islands.
Advocates like Brady have been lobbying hard this legislative session to pass reform measures aimed at reducing the population of pre-trial detainees.
Before the riot, the Maui jail was 109 inmates over capacity, and 168 of the jail’s total population of 410 were pretrial detainees.
Hawaii has 2,047 inmates currently in its four jails, but only has total capacity for 1,609 of them.
“Conditions surrounding overcrowding create tense moments in the institution and problems,” Espinda told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2017 over Hawaii’s crowded and dilapidated prisons and jails. Those facilities need nearly $542 million worth of repair work.
The ACLU wants the DOJ to investigate and take legal action against the state. As of Thursday however, the feds have yet to act on the complaint, ACLU Director Joshua Wisch said.
Wisch, who previously worked in the state attorney general’s office when the complaint was filed, told Civil Beat on Thursday that the ACLU reviewed a year’s worth of data on Hawaii’s jail population and found that about half the inmates are pretrial detainees.
“We have a large number of people in jails that are quite literally innocent in the eye of the law,” he said.
Wisch said one of the quickest ways to reduce the jail population would be to enact sweeping reforms, like eliminating Hawaii’s over-reliance on its cash bail system.
A pretrial task force made recommendations to the Legislature on several reform measures to consider, but elimination of the cash bail system was not one of them.
The Legislature appears to be a dead end for more prison reforms this session. House Bill 1289 would have adopted several of the reforms that the task force recommended.
Rep. Gregg Takayama, who chairs the House Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, said Thursday that it was the most comprehensive reform measure in recent years.
His counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Clarence Nishihara, shot down the measure Monday.
Still, prison rights advocates are hoping a bill that would create a prison oversight commission makes its way through this session. Nishihara previously told Civil Beat he is confident that House Bill 1552 has enough votes to clear the Senate.
Monica Espitia, the ACLU’s smart justice campaign director, said that the bill is an important first step to reforming Hawaii’s criminal justice system.
One of that report’s recommendations was to eliminate the use of private prisons. A legislative measure that was proposed has since died.
Lawmakers said moving hundreds of inmates back from a private prison in Arizona is unrealistic.
To partially address its overcrowding problems, Hawaii sends its inmates to Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona. The privately owned prison, which opened in 2007, currently holds 1,457 inmates from Hawaii. Some of their family members incur great costs to visit them.
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell