Some of the inmates at the packed Hilo jail have been stuck there because they could not post bail in amounts as low as $15, and conditions at the facility are so poor they rival conditions at the infamous Rikers Island in New York City, a Hawaii corrections oversight panel was told Thursday.

Christin Johnson, the oversight coordinator for the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission, said she has visited nearly 50 prisons and jails across the country, “and I have never seen one in this condition — ever. It was just pretty terrible, to be frank.”

Johnson, who was recently hired by Gov. David Ige to staff the commission, has been touring state correctional facilities in recent weeks as part of her introduction to the system, and she has already been warning that conditions at some do not meet minimum legal requirements established by the federal courts.

Her office released an alarming report earlier this month detailing an array of problems at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center, including inmates sleeping on the floors, prisoners locked in “dry” cells with no toilets, and cells that were secured with padlocks because the original locks had failed.

Johnson briefed the commission Thursday on the most obvious concerns, including the issue that legally mandated recreation and visits were not being allowed.

Because Hawaii Community Correctional Center is passed capacity, some inmates sleep on the floor in the Day room. Photo: Tim Wright
Inmates sleep on the floor of a day room at Hawaii Community Correctional Center. According to the Oversight Commission Coordinator Christin Johnson, conditions at the Hilo jail do not meet even minimum requirements established by the federal courts. Tim Wright/2019

Johnson had an office on Rikers Island when she worked for the New York City Board of Correction, and Rikers has a notorious reputation as one of the worst jails in the nation, she said.

“I don’t think that it would be that way if people saw HCCC, that’s how bad it was,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Commissioner Ted Sakai, a former director of the Department of Public Safety who accompanied Johnson on her visit to HCCC, said staff at HCCC are coping day by day.

“There seemed to no plan to get out of the terrible mess that they’re in right now,” he said.

“There’s a housing unit that is (under construction), but it’s just a housing unit. The facility needs to be completely overhauled. The medical facilities are completely inadequate, and there’s no plan to improve the medical facilities. There is no recreational space, there is no plan to improve the recreation space,” he told his fellow commissioners.

Part of the problem is the jail staff does not know what conditions, services and inmate activities are legally required, Johnson said, and some staff at the jail were surprised to hear of the federal mandates.

“If you don’t know the federal standards and you don’t know what’s required of you — which they should, they should know that, these aren’t new … it’s difficult. I’m talking to these staff, especially the line staff who are just trying to do the best they can with the conditions that they have, and I say that wholeheartedly,” she said.

Commissioner Martha Torney, a former administrator with the department, interrupted to tell Johnson that the department used to provide the wardens with copies of the latest standards published by the American Correctional Association. Those ACA standards are based in part on the latest federal court requirements.

“It used to be that throughout the system that they understood the standards. They couldn’t always meet them, but they understood them,” Torney said.

Johnson replied: “My impression was that people were just really feeling lost, and that was what surprised me. It has to be a top-to-down approach. Downtown has to know, the warden has to know, the line staff have to know.”

Johnson told the commission the department has developed a plan to keep HCCC Warden Cramer Mahoe in constant contact with the courts and the intake service center to figure out ways to deal with people arrested for minor crimes who are being held because they can’t pay even very low bail amounts to get out.

The goal is “we have people in there with $15 bails, $20 bails, $30 bails, and so really looking at that, and highlighting them and trying to get them out,” she told the commission.

The original report on HCCC that Johnson made public on Sept. 2 cited problems with cracked windows on cell doors, and those windows have now been fixed, she said.

Some cells in the jail that had been under construction were completed and are now occupied, she said, and HCCC opened up another yard to allow for more recreational time.

A look inside a jail cell at Hilo's Hawaii Community Correctional Center. Photo: Tim Wright
The inside of a jail cell at Hilo’s Hawaii Community Correctional Center. Some prisoners have remained locked up there because they could not post bail amounts that were as low as $15. Tim Wright/2019

Johnson said there also appeared to be a reduction in the overall population of HCCC since last month. Data published by the Department of Public Safety shows HCCC has an operating capacity of 224 inmates, but actually held 324 prisoners on Aug. 22, which was several days before Johnson made her initial visit to the jail.

The department did not respond to a request Thursday for details on how much the inmate population at HCCC has been reduced during the past month, but data posted online from the department showed there were 328 inmates at HCCC on Sept. 12.

Tommy Johnson, deputy director for corrections for the department, said some HCCC inmates were moved to another facility in Hilo called Hale Nani, while some sentenced felons were moved from HCCC to Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu.

“I would like to say the the issue of overcrowding at HCCC is not of Public Safety’s doing,” Tommy Johnson told the commission. The larger criminal justice system continues processing inmates, and addressing jail overcrowding “has to be done at the front of the system.”

“We cannot turn anybody away, we have to take everybody they send us, because we don’t have release authority over 96% of the population,” he said.

The department “also completed a thorough review of the pretrial population at HCCC in an effort to determine if some of them could be safely released without compromising public safety,” according to a written statement provided by the department after the Thursday commission meeting.

“The reviews occur continuously, and when appropriate PSD’s Intake Service Center prepares reports for the court to consider releasing those identified,” according to the statement.

As for the facility itself, the department already had several construction and repair jobs underway at HCCC before Christin Johnson’s walk-through, according to the statement from the department.

“These jobs include replacement of cell doors, cell locking mechanisms, cell refurbishing, repair of restrooms and shower facilities, and other projects designed to improve the security and living conditions for those incarcerated,” it said.

But Tommy Johnson also told the commission that “every time we go to the Legislature to ask for money, we don’t get what we ask for just to maintain the facilities. Case in point, last year we didn’t get 90% of the (construction) funding we asked for.”

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