With the establishment of the new commission to oversee Hawaii’s jails and prisons, the state wants to move from punishing inmates to rehabilitating them.

But are prison guards being trained for the task?

That training now focuses heavily on the punitive aspect of corrections, says Bob Merce, the vice chair of a legislative prison reform task force that authored a detailed report with recommendations on how to improve the state’s failing prison system.

“A rehabilitative system is going to have to call for a different behavior on their part,” he said. “We’re going to need a lot of training.”

Hawaii does not provide standardized education and training for correctional workers, the report from 2018 pointed out. The task force called for a comprehensive academy to train workers in rehabilitative philosophy, saying an “untrained or poorly trained staff contributes to poor outcomes, an unsafe workplace, poor morale and an inefficient workforce.”

Oahu Community Correctional Center media tour 2019 inmate walks down hall between modules.
Hawaii currently has a nine-week basic training program for correctional officers, but it’s not accredited. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

In fact, the Department of Public Safety does have a nine-week basic training program that it calls an “academy.” The department says it compares well to other states, requiring more hours of pre-service training than all but five of them.

However, it is not accredited or certified, as are many states’ training programs. For example, California and Arizona’s programs are both accredited under their respective peace officer standards and training boards, which also certify law enforcement officers.

Hawaii is in the process of applying for accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

The public safety department declined to set up an interview with a training director, but provided the curriculum and a study it prepared for the prison reform task force.

“The data reflects Hawaii ACO training hours, content and pay is among the best,” said Toni Schwartz, a department spokeswoman.

The curriculum is broken into 13 modules that deal with everything from basic corrections principles, legal issues, communications and crisis intervention to health and wellness. It involves 360 hours of classroom training and 40 hours of field training, which the department’s study says is above the national average.

Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety provides 360 hours of classroom training and 40 hours of field training. But 40% of new recruits don’t get all 40 hours of the field training because of staffing shortages. Hawaii Department of Public Safety

However, 40% of recruits don’t get the full 40 hours of field training, the study says, because of a shortage of experienced correctional officers to supervise the recruits, according to the report.

The study also says that in the past, Hawaii’s correctional training was much more about “custody and control,” but that has changed to include more emphasis on crisis intervention and de-escalation.

Merce, the vice chair of the legislative prison reform task force, said that’s not what he saw when he visited the training program, which he described as “overwhelmingly focused on learning to control the inmates.”

“That’s going to require a total rethinking,” he said.

The task force proposed in its 2018 report that the new corrections academy should “focus on the principles of rehabilitation, the role of the correctional professional in promoting rehabilitation, conflict resolution, counseling, the use of risk assessment instruments, cognitive behavior intervention” and motivational interviewing, among other things.

It cited Norway’s Correctional Service Academy, a two-year program, as a model. Nine weeks may be enough to teach people how to control inmates, Merce said, but not to transform and rehabilitate them.

In Oregon, the academy part of the training is only six weeks, said Eriks Gabliks, director of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. But new recruits must go through a whole year of field training before they become licensed correctional officers.

“Really, that one year window is an appropriate amount of time to finish that field training,” he said. “We’re comfortable with one year.”

All corrections officers — city, county and state — come through the academy, then return to their facilities and go through field training in their own posts, he said. That’s because new recruits need to actually learn to apply the skills they learned in the classroom.

Other Priorities Loom

The Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission is tasked with helping transition the prison system from punishment to rehabilitation. Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat/2020

Merce said he realizes a two-year academy in Hawaii is not going to happen any time soon; there’s a lot of work to be done.

But the new Correctional Systems Oversight Commission is responsible for moving the correctional system towards a rehabilitative and therapeutic model, he said, and part of that should be taking a look at the training structure and recommending changes to the public safety department.

Commission Chair Mark Patterson, a former corrections officer, warden and now the administrator of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, said while corrections officer training is important, it may not be one of the first things on the commission’s plate. The commission had its first meeting on Jan. 16 and still does not have a coordinator, the only paid position.

Patterson said in that first meeting that he wanted to look broadly at the system instead of focusing too much on any specific issue.

Other issues need to be worked out, including overcrowding in jails and decrepit facilities before a structured training academy can be established, he said.

“You can have a great academy, but we haven’t worked on the leadership and the structures,” he said.

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