With many of the state’s jails and prisons overcrowded and in disrepair, Hawaii’s new prisons’ oversight commission has its work cut out for it. However, the delay in appointments have pushed back the hiring of its director.

Created by the Legislature and signed into law in July, the Correctional System Oversight Commission is intended to guide reform from a punitive system to a rehabilitative one. Advocates and lawmakers were hopeful that it would be the cure to the system’s many ills, but the commission’s slow takeoff had reformers worried.

Now that all five commissioners have been appointed, there’s another concern. All of them have formerly worked or currently work in the state’s criminal justice system. Two were formerly in leadership within the public safety department, including former public safety director Ted Sakai and Martha Torney, while two are retired judges — Mike Town and Ronald Ibarra. The fifth — Mark Patterson — is currently a youth corrections administrator.

“We have five people who are part of the system and we’re asking them how to fix it,” said Kat Brady, director of Community Alliance on Prisons and a longtime advocate for Hawaii’s prisoners.

The correctional system oversight commission, which has a budget of $160,000 for fiscal year 2020, is supposed to keep the Hawaii Department of Public Safety in check, and the department is supposed to provide full access to the commission and comply with its recommendations, according to the statute.

But with who they’ve got on the commission, they would essentially be providing oversight to people they worked with or work with now, which isn’t oversight, Brady said.

Womens Community Correctional Center Intake area entrance.
The oversight commission has not hired a director yet, although it’s supposed to have one in place by Dec. 1. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“The people who actually know what’s going on in the prisons are the people who lived there,” Brady  said.

Kat Brady coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons testifies during oversight commission hearing.
Kat Brady says she is concerned that the commission did not include anyone who has formerly been incarcerated. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The roster of commissioners doesn’t reflect lived experience, she said.

Not only that, some of them were in charge when many of these problems really began to simmer, she pointed out.

But the commissioners’ experience within the system is precisely why they will be good at their jobs, says House Speaker Scott Saiki, who appointed a commissioner. He picked Martha Torney, who previously served as the public safety department’s deputy director for administration.

“I think you need to have people who understand the system,” he said.

Saiki was the last to make his appointment, in November. He said he realized that all of the commissioners were male, and wanted someone who could help figure out women’s issues inside prisons.

It did occur to him that there were also no community members or formerly incarcerated people, he said.

But it was more important to have someone who had experience, he said.

“We know what needs to be reformed,” he said. “The question is how do you reform these problems that have been in existence for decades.”

The problems in Hawaii’s prisons and jails are well known by now.

Civil Beat visited six Hawaii state correctional facilities in November, including the Maui Community Correctional Center, where a riot in March caused more than $5 million in damages. The public safety department pointed to overcrowding as one of the main reasons for a handful of pretrial detainees starting a riot in Module B, which is one of the general population housing units.

While media toured the Maui facility, four people were housed in each cell, which only has two bunk beds, inside Module B. Inmates kicked and banged on their doors, yelling “overcrowded” and “I need toilet paper,” among other things.

What Civil Beat observed in most of the Oahu facilities and on Maui were unsanitary living conditions, with many of the modules packing in more inmates than they were designed for. Some of the outdated dormitory-style housing units were not properly air conditioned and had poor plumbing.

Halawa Correctional Facility, which houses convicted prisoners, was not overcrowded.

Gov. David Ige’s pick was ex-Director of Public Safety Ted Sakai, who worked for the department for nearly 30 years.

“Mr. Sakai is highly qualified to serve on the Correctional System Oversight Commission because of his extensive leadership and experience in the correctional system,” spokeswoman Cindy McMillan said in a statement.

Retired Judge Mike Town, who was appointed to the commission by Senate President Ron Kouchi, said all of the members are independent and committed to “fundamental change.”

“The proof will be in the pudding,” he said. Commissioners have not yet discussed what specific issues to work on, he added.

The first public meeting is scheduled for mid-January, he said.

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