More than two years after lawmakers created the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission to act as an independent state watchdog, the commission has finally been cleared to hire a full-time coordinator to investigate conditions in state prisons and jails.

Act 179 took effect in mid-2019 as part of a push for reforms that would make the state correctional system more “rehabilitative and therapeutic,” and a high-powered five-member volunteer commission was appointed to lead that effort.

The Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission at a meeting last year. The commission has finally been cleared to hire a coordinator. Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat

The commissioners include two retired state judges, a former director of the state Department of Public Safety and a former deputy director of the department, and the commission tried last year to hire a coordinator who would be empowered to investigate complaints and monitor conditions inside.

But Gov. David Ige’s administration never released $488,000 in funding that would have allowed the commission to hire and pay staff in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

Retired Judge Michael Town, who is a member of the commission, said in mid-September he is appalled the administration has “slow walked” this funding for the commission at a time when Covid-19 has infected thousands of state inmates.

The state is being accused in state and  federal court of failing to properly respond to the pandemic, and “we’ve got to get that fast walked, because the result is … people are dying in prison, they’re sick in prison, and they’re not getting out,” Town said.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Itomura told the commission on Thursday the administration has now cleared the way to hire a coordinator, and the job opening could be posted as early as next week.

The coordinator’s position pays $154,812 per year, and the job responsibilities are described in Act 179.

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