The Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission — created in 2019 to help fix the state’s broken jails and prisons — says it can’t do the job it’s legally mandated to do because the state is dragging its feet on hiring a full-time director.

“Maybe we’ve been forgotten,” Ted Sakai, a commissioner and former state public safety director of nearly 30 years, said at a commission meeting Thursday.

The statute that created the commission authorizes a paid oversight coordinator to aid the commissioners, who are not paid, in investigating complaints, producing reports to the governor and Legislature and conducting ongoing studies, among other duties.

The Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission was created in July 2019, but has not hired an administrator yet.

Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat

That position should have started on Dec. 1, 2019, according to the statute, which also authorized $330,000 to fund the position and possibly other research and clerical staff for fiscal year 2021, which started July 1.

“Without the oversight coordinator, I don’t know how we can do all this which is required under the law,” said Commissioner Ronald Ibarra, a retired judge from Hawaii island.

The state’s budget reality, however, has dramatically changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In April, Gov. David Ige instituted a hiring freeze on all state departments, which remains in effect. In May, the state Council on Revenues projected a $2.3 billion shortfall in the state budget.

Yet the oversight commission has continued to face tasks and challenges that couldn’t be handled without an administrator, the commissioners said.

Recently, the commission has been involved in the Hawaii Supreme Court-ordered, collaborative process of releasing inmates from jails and prisons to reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Despite the work the commissioners are doing, they said they felt ignored and “slow-walked,” because the background check process for the oversight coordinator position, which should have been filled long before the hiring freeze went into effect, has taken two months now.

The state attorney general’s office is responsible for handling the commission’s administrative matters and is reviewing three finalists for the position. It did not respond to Civil Beat’s inquiry by deadline.

The long wait is effectively making them powerless, Sakai, the former public safety director, said.

“I don’t want to be like the Law Enforcement Standards Board,” he said.

That board, another state entity established by statute in 2018, was supposed to create basic certification standards for law enforcement officers in Hawaii. It meets infrequently and has not achieved its intended goal.

“I don’t want us to simply struggle on, writing letters, getting nothing done,” Sakai added.

The commission voted to write a letter to the governor and Legislature, urging them to take action on the matter.

Plans For New Jail Move Forward

Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Safety is forging ahead with pursuing a public-private partnership to finance a $525 million project to build a new Oahu jail complex in the Halawa area.

The proposed location of the new Oahu jail complex is in the Halawa-Aiea area.

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Bettina Mehnert, president of AHL, an architect contractor working with the state, told commissioners Thursday that a private partner — selected through a request for proposals — would provide the financing for designing and building, but management authority will remain with the public safety department.

Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for DPS, said the RFP process has not begun yet.

A public-private partnership is worth exploring, especially considering the scale of the project, said Rep. Gregg Takayama, chair of the House Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. This particular project is going to cost half a billion dollars, he pointed out.

“It provides a way of paying for it,” he said. “I clearly believe that we need a new OCCC and it’s been delayed for far too long,” he added.

However, Bob Merce, a retired attorney and member of the legislative task force that previously produced a lengthy report detailing reform measures the state should take to improve the state’s correctional system, said the planning process for the new jail had gone awry from the beginning.

The report specifically recommends that the state “immediately stop the costly planning for a huge new jail and form a collaborative working group of stakeholders and government officials to plan and design a jail that is smaller, smarter and less expensive than the one now under construction.”

But the public safety department and its contractors ignored the task force’s recommendations and the community’s input, he said. Not only did they ignore the recommendations, they headed exactly in the “wrong direction,” he said.

“Hawaii’s thinking is not in the mainstream of American correctional thinking,” Merce said.

More states are looking to downsize and reduce jail populations, not build bigger jails and fill them, he said.

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