Severe overcrowding and other problems at the dilapidated Hilo jail have become so bad the state is launching a stop-gap program to move some inmates to Oahu and to borrow maintenance staff from other facilities to repair broken lights, cracked cell windows and fix other problems at the facility.

That initiative by the Department of Public Safety to try to make the jail safer and improve conditions for inmates was triggered by a damning new report on the facility based on a recent walk-through of the jail by staff and a member of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission.

Several of the problems identified in the report, which was released Friday, are identical to the jail conditions cited by a federal judge last year when she ruled there was a “strong likelihood” that HCCC inmates could prove in court that the conditions they endured at the jail were so poor they violated the prisoners’ constitutional rights.

The Aug. 25 tour of the facility by commission Oversight Coordinator Christin Johnson and Commissioner Ted Sakai found “egregiously overcrowded” conditions at the jail, and inmates who had been housed in cells without toilets or sinks for weeks or longer. Staff have to accompany the prisoners to bathroom facilities to relieve themselves.

Hawaii Community Correctional Center HCCC entrance. September 24, 2020
The exterior of the Punahele portion of the Hawaii Community Correctional Center complex in 2020. Overcrowding at the Hilo jail has reached a point that is “unacceptable,” according to a new report. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

‘Egregiously Overcrowded’ Conditions

Sakai, a former director of the Department of Public Safety, wrote in a separate report that overcrowding in what is known as the Punahele portion of the facility on the Puna side of the jail complex was “unacceptable.”

Locks on the doors of many cells in the Punahele section of the jail had failed, and six of the cells there were closed for repairs. Other cells were secured with padlocks, a dangerous practice because it makes it difficult to reach the inmates inside during a fight, a medical emergency or a fire.

The official capacity of the Punahele unit is 22 prisoners because the cells there are smaller than normal, measuring only about 60 square feet each. With six cells out of commission because of the lock failures, the official capacity of Punahele was 16, but 83 inmates were jammed inside the unit on Aug. 25, according to the report.

To make everyone fit, staff crammed three or four inmates each into 10 tiny cells that are supposed to hold just one person each, according to the commission report. Another 15 inmates were housed on mattresses on the floor in an area known as “The Fishbowl,” which has no toilets or sinks. That room was originally designed as a classroom or program area.

The report also noted the glass windows on the doors of many of the cells in the Punahele unit were either blocked or so badly cracked it was impossible for corrections officers to see what is happening inside, or to check on inmates.

“A combination of staffing shortages, lack of visibility, and padlocks on the cell doors is of grave concern for how often individuals are being checked on and monitored,” according to the report.

‘A System Failure’

It added that “it is not possible for the officer to see or hear what is happening in any of the cells from the officer desk, or in the large open area in general. This also creates an extremely unsafe condition for staff who are forced to open the doors in order to check on individuals who undoubtedly are experiencing high tensions due to the inhumane living conditions they are faced with.”

Johnson wrote that the issues at HCCC “are a system-failure. These issues were not caused by, and cannot be solved by, the warden or staff at the facility alone. Additionally, many of the … issues took months or years for the conditions to
reach their current state.”

The now-notorious Fishbowl area of the jail and the ongoing practice of holding inmates in cells without sinks or toilets was specifically cited by federal District Judge Jill Otake in her scathing ruling on July 13, 2021.

Otake wrote that “cramped housing of inmates in the fishbowl at HCCC or the need for inmates to urinate in cups due to a lack of access to toilets” met the legal standard “objective deliberate indifference” on the part of corrections officials.

That key finding left the state extremely vulnerable to claims that conditions endured by HCCC inmates were so bad they were a violation of the inmates’ constitutional rights. Otake ordered the state to follow its Pandemic Response Plan to protect the inmates from Covid-19 infections, and the state quickly entered into a settlement to resolve the lawsuit.

Damage from a 2020 riot at the Hilo jail. Unsanitary and dangerous conditions persist at the facility, and the state plans to move some prisoners out to reduce the inmate population there. Courtesy: Department of Public Safety/2020

Dry Cells

Despite that sharp criticism from Otake, the new report suggests many of the same unsanitary and dangerous conditions persist at the overcrowded jail.

Johnson wrote that “one cell in particular was a dry-cell, meaning it had no toilet or access to water. This cell had at least five women housed inside with mattresses on the floor.” When she asked the women how long they had been held there, one replied a month, and the others said two weeks.

“Dry cells are meant to be used for a few hours while proper placement is found,” Johnson wrote. “Dry cells are designed for temporary holding, never to be used as housing.”

Inmates also reported no in-person visits for Punahele prisoners because of a construction project underway to expand the jail; no outside recreation time; and a lack of soap and hygiene products.

A shipping container that was converted into four cells was being used as a quarantine unit for prisoners who have Covid-19 or were exposed to the virus, but the lighting had failed in two of those cells, leaving them “completely pitch black” inside. Corrections officers had to shine flashlights into the container to check on the inmates, according to the report.

Johnson toured the jail for a second time on Wednesday with Deputy Director for Corrections Tommy Johnson, Institutions Division Administrator Michael Hoffman, and HCCC Warden Cramer Mahoe, and that group developed a plan that includes transferring some inmates to Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu later this month.

Plans are also being developed to send sentenced misdemeanor offenders to the minimum security Kulani Correctional Facility on Hawaii island, and to seek volunteers from the maintenance staffs at other facilities to make repairs at HCCC, according to the report.

Johnson is also planning biweekly tours of HCCC, according to the report.

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