Legislators are considering the requirement after inmates who were sexually abused by corrections officers sued the state.

A measure that would require the Hawaii prison system to finally install digital cameras in the control booths used by corrections officers who supervise inmates at the women’s prison in Kailua won unanimous approval from a state Senate committee on Monday.

Senate Bill 1470 calls for cameras to be installed by July 1, 2024, in all “guard control
rooms in the Women’s Community Correctional Center” after the control booths were repeatedly used by prison staff to sexually abuse inmates.

The bill cites two separate lawsuits that documented cases where inmates were abused in the booths at WCCC. One lawsuit was settled when the state and a corrections officer agreed to pay an inmate a total of $100,000 to resolve the lawsuit after the prisoner was assaulted in 2012.

More recently, Honolulu lawyers Terrance Revere and Richard Wilson represented a group of women inmates who alleged that prison staff conducted more than 50 sexual assaults of inmates in 2015 and 2016, including about two dozen that occurred in the prison control stations.

Women's Community Correctional Center.
Senate Bill 1470 would partly address the long-standing issue of poor video camera monitoring at the Women’s Community Correctional Center. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

In some cases, staff offered snacks, methamphetamine and special privileges to the inmates involved, but the lawsuit alleged the women were coerced, and characterized the sexual misconduct as “rapes.” Any sexual contact between a prison inmate and staff is a felony under Hawaii law because prisoners cannot legally give consent.

A federal court jury refused to award any damages to the women in that case last year. However, Revere and Wilson have asked a federal court judge to order the state to install cameras in the booths. The lawyers even offered to pay for cameras themselves.

The poor quality video monitoring in the women’s prison has been an issue for years. Consultant Buford Goff & Associates Inc. inspected the camera equipment at WCCC in 2013 and noted the equipment was in poor condition, with cameras that did not work and video quality that was described as “very poor.”

The report recommended that older cameras be replaced to provide higher quality video and cameras be added to support operations and provide “video evidence for investigations.”

Last August, a walk-through of WCCC by the staff of the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission revealed that more than 40% of the video cameras at the facility were not working at that time.

Tommy Johnson, director of the state Department of Public Safety, supported the bill requiring the state to install cameras in the control booths. He said in written testimony the state has contracted with a consultant to review surveillance security systems in all correctional facilities statewide.

The original draft of the bill also would have required that corrections officers wear body cameras, but Johnson urged the Senate Public Safety and Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee to instead authorize a study to determine if body cameras are feasible in correctional facilities statewide.

The study would also determine the cost of the cameras as well as the training required to deploy them throughout the correctional system, Johnson said.

Sen. Glenn Wakai, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, agreed to delete the portion of the measure requiring body cameras but said he will add new language in the bill requiring that cameras be installed in the control booths at all facilities housing women inmates.

That would include the Oahu Community Correctional Center, the Hawaii Community Correctional Center on the Big Island, the Kauai Community Correctional Center and the Maui Community Correctional Center as well as WCCC.

The measure now goes to the Senate Ways and Means Committee for further consideration.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author