More than 40% of the video cameras at the women’s prison in Kailua apparently aren’t working, a problem that makes it far more difficult to investigate and prosecute allegations of sexual abuse and other misconduct at the facility, according to an official who did a walk-through inspection of the prison last month.

That lack of working cameras at the women’s prison is “a huge, huge red flag,” according to Christin Johnson, oversight coordinator for the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission.

Johnson also noted there are no cameras at all at Waiawa Correctional Facility for men, which Johnson described as “a little shocking” because the lack of video makes it more difficult to investigate drug use, smuggling of contraband or other incidents, including allegations of sexual assault.

“It’s very difficult to do investigations when you don’t have cameras that you can go back and look at, so I was a bit surprised to learn about that,” she told the commission in a briefing last month.

But Johnson’s greatest concern was with the lack of functioning cameras at the women’s facility because “it really, really affects the investigative processes for the facility staff,” particularly when there are allegations of sexual misconduct.

The Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua has a decades-long history of alleged sexual assaults and sexual misconduct cases involving the inmates there, including some that resulted in firings, arrests, convictions and prison time for some staff. The assaults have also triggered an array of  lawsuits over the years.

Staff at the Women’s Community Correctional Center disclosed that more than 40% of the cameras at the facility are not functioning. 

“The correctional system in Hawaii has long been haunted by problems with sexual abuse and assault of women offenders who are incarcerated, so that’s the backdrop,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

“You have to have preventive measures in place, and one of the most important of those is to employ technology that allows you to eliminate places where sexual assault of women can occur,” she said. “So, obviously, cameras and working cameras in women’s prisons are extremely important, and if they’re broken for whatever reason, it has to be a high priority to fix them.”

She said that is “clearly not the case” if nearly half the cameras at WCCC are down.

When asked why so many cameras at WCCC aren’t working, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said the main problem is the systems are old, but in some cases cameras have been damaged by inmates.

“The age of the systems vary between facilities and some facilities operate more than one camera system,” Schwartz said in a written response to questions. When asked how long the systems have been down, she replied: “The length of time varies from facility to facility. Many are fixed only to be damaged again within a matter of months.”

The department is currently trying to use federal funds to “replace outdated cameras that are not functioning, repair those that can be repaired, and install additional cameras in blind spot areas,” she wrote.

In the meantime, “staff have been instructed to increase vigilance and to conduct more frequent physical security checks of affected areas,” according to Schwartz.

The most recent report made public under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act for WCCC shows sexual assault is very much an active concern.

There were five allegations of staff sexually abusing inmates at WCCC in 2020. Of those cases, two were substantiated, two were determined to be “unsubstantiated” and one was determined to be “unfounded,” according to the report.

Unsubstantiated allegations are those that are investigated, but the investigation produces insufficient evidence to determine if they are true or not. Unfounded allegations are those that are investigated and deemed to be false.

The Department of Public Safety is trying to use federal funds to fix cameras, install new ones or put cameras in areas with no coverage throughout the correctional system, including at WCCC. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

That same year the women’s prison also had five allegations of inmate sexual abuse of other inmates. Three of those allegations were deemed to be unsubstantiated, and two were classified as unfounded.

There were nine allegations of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse in 2019. Of those cases, three were classified as unsubstantiated, while six others were deemed to be unfounded, or false.

Chesney-Lind noted that under Hawaii law, any sexual contact between an inmate and staff is a felony because prisoners cannot legally give consent. But it is often difficult to win convictions in such cases because the victims have criminal convictions of their own or may be former sex workers, and juries may be reluctant to convict based on the inmates’ testimony.

The lack of working cameras “shows a lack of commitment to eradicating or reducing the problem,” she said. “If you’ve got that many cameras out of action, you’re going to have problems, and again, this is a system that has been haunted by these problems.”

Ending that pattern will require strong and effective leadership, and a “commitment to ending the practice,” Chesney-Lind said.

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