The head of the Hawaii’s prison system on Thursday offered his personal condolences to the father of an inmate who hanged himself at Halawa Correctional Facility five years ago, and even thanked the father for suing the state over his son’s death because “it did bring attention to what we needed to do, and what we can do better.”

“We do plan to make things better, and hopefully to prevent these types of situations from occurring in the future,” said Max Otani, director of the state Department of Public Safety. “We’re trying to make repairs to the system as best as we can.”

Otani made his comments at a meeting of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission, which was briefed Thursday on the case of Joseph O’Malley, a 28-year-old prisoner who hanged himself at the state’s largest prison on July 27, 2017.

O’Malley’s father Michael sued the state on behalf of Joseph O’Malley’s estate, and the state Attorney General’s Office admitted the state was liable in O’Malley’s death. Circuit Judge John Tonaki then awarded O’Malley’s estate $1.375 million in the case in March.

Joseph O'Malley
Joseph O’Malley committed suicide at Halawa Correctional Facility in 2017. Courtesy: O'Malley family

Joseph O’Malley had a long history of mental illness, and his primary treating psychiatrist at Halawa diagnosed him with schizoaffective disorder. In the 10 months prior to his death, O’Malley was placed on suicide watch seven times at Halawa, including once when he attempted to hang himself, according to court records in the case.

O’Malley was removed from suicide watch and placed on “safety watch” in a one-man cell in the prison medical unit shortly before he died, and prison officials reported Halawa staff had followed the protocol of the system’s suicide prevention policy in the case.

But Dr. Pablo Stewart, an expert who reviewed the case in connection with the lawsuit, concluded that claim by the department was an attempt to cover up deep flaws in the system.

Stewart found that video recordings showed that staff at Halawa failed to check on O’Malley in his cell every 15 minutes as required by the policy, and had locked him in a cell with bars that protruded into the cell in a way that made it possible for him to hang himself.

Stewart also declared that the prison practice of isolating suicidal inmates and depriving them of human contact including visits, calls to family and recreation time can dramatically aggravate mental illnesses.

Corrections officers acknowledged in their depositions that inmates on suicide watch were held in their single cells for 24 hours per day except for showers, and prisoners on safety watch were generally in their cells for 23 hours per day.

Prison policies also call for inmates to be transferred to Hawaii State Hospital for treatment if they are so severely mentally ill that they cannot be properly cared for at Halawa, but top staff reported that was rarely or never done. In fact, the prison staff psychiatrist said she was unaware that was even an option.

Stewart said he was also mystified as to why the prison system was using medications for mental illness that are obsolete and significantly below the modern day standard of care.

Stewart told the commission Thursday that his review of the O’Malley case suggests that the department needs to act quickly to reform mental health care in the correctional system, both to protect the inmates and to protect the department itself.

“I’ve been around in this litigation long enough to just have a bad feeling that some people are going to look at this from the outside, and it’s not defensible the way that things are right now,” he told the commission.

“I’m not encouraging anyone to do this, but I can just sort of read the tea leaves, and it looks like this is going to end up in federal court, and they’re going to get a consent decree or some big ruling, and so I would love to see us address this prior to that point,” Stewart said.

Michael O’Malley, whose son died at Halawa Correctional Facility, listened Thursday to an online discussion of prison mental health care. Dr. Pablo Stewart, who is an expert in the field, warned that the state may be vulnerable to additional lawsuits if it does not reform the system. Screenshot/2022

Commission Chairman Mark Patterson, who years ago worked as a corrections captain at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, said resolving some of those issues requires the cooperation of multiple agencies. For example, Patterson recalled occasions when the state hospital refused to accept OCCC inmates who were sent there by the courts.

Thomas Otake, who was part of the legal team that sued the state on behalf of the O’Malley estate, said the current plans to replace OCCC with a new facility offers an “incredible opportunity.”

“We see that as probably one of the biggest opportunities to make some meaningful change in this system,” Otake said. “The building of this jail could be a generational thing that changes the entire system in ways that are for the better, and if we don’t take advantage of that, it’s going to just go back to 30 or 40 more years of the same approach.”

However, Otani noted that the Legislature this session rejected a request by the department for another $15 million to continue planning that new jail, and also refused to provide $45 million the department requested for a new consolidated health care unit at Halawa.

“We will go back again next year, and hopefully we will have support from Mr. O’Malley and the commission to support these projects that are badly needed,” Otani said.

O’Malley told the commission that he pursued the lawsuit because he wanted to know what happened to Joseph, and “we were shocked when we found what was going on there.”

“My folks always told me that the way you measure a community is how they treat the least among us, and if this is any fair measurement, then we’re sorely lacking and we need to fix things, and that’s really what we’re trying to do here,” he said.

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