Johnson is a veteran of the existing system but pledged “a complete paradigm shift” if confirmed as the director of the Department of Public Safety.

A Senate committee voted 4-0 on Wednesday in favor of Gov. Josh Green’s appointment of Tommy Johnson to run the state’s prisons and jails despite bitter resistance from the union that represents Hawaii correctional officers.

A half-dozen United Public Workers union members who work at the Oahu Community Correctional Center testified against Johnson’s appointment, with one declaring that the state needs to “clean house.”

Officers cited acute staff shortages at OCCC that force them to work 16- and 24-hour shifts at times, and criticized the system’s flawed response to the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 sickened officers and was blamed in the deaths of 11 inmates statewide.

“We require a person of action who can make sound decisions, not someone who is non-transparent, makes excuses, and is passive,” said UPW President Darrell Wilcox, who has worked as a correctional officer at OCCC for over 25 years. He opposed Johnson’s appointment.

UPW members gather around a video screen outside the Capitol hearing room during Tommy Johnson’s confirmation hearing. The union, which has about 13,000 members including Hawaii corrections officers, opposed Johnson’s appointment. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“Our department has long been plagued by leaders who are unaccountable, irresponsible and unresponsive to the needs of our staff and facilities,” Wilcox said. He said OCCC alone is currently short 100 corrections officers.

Johnson replied that the grave staffing problem — the correctional system has about 300 vacancies out of 1,535 officer positions — is aggravated by corrections officers who repeatedly fail to show up for work as scheduled. That forces others to work longer shifts to cover for staff who are absent.

He said he is putting in place a management team to make positive change. “Now, not everybody may be happy with that, but the change is needed to change the direction of the department, and change the work ethic of the staff,” he said.

Johnson’s nomination to be director of the Department of Public Safety now goes to the full Senate for a final vote.

Johnson said he has also stepped up the pace of basic officer training classes, and had 96 graduates last year. By contrast, in 2019 and 2020 the department graduated only about three dozen new recruits each year, he said.

And Johnson said he moved aggressively to cope with the pandemic when he took control of the correctional system in 2020, making sure that protective equipment was finally distributed to staff as needed, and that staff were told what to do.

Looking ahead, Johnson said “I want to help guide the department to the successful transition from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This change is an ideal time to do a complete paradigm shift” from what some regard as a punitive model to more treatment and program-oriented approach.

But he acknowledged there are major challenges ahead. Johnson told the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee that problems include “overcrowding, antiquated and aged facilities, severe infrastructure woes, lack of sufficient funding (and) litigious clientele.”

Tommy Johnson, Gov. Josh Green’s nominee for Public Safety director, emerges from the hearing after winning tentative approval in a 4-0 vote. (David Croxford/Civil Beat)

Even so, he praised the staffs in the facilities, and said that “for each one thing that goes wrong — say an offender walking away from a work furlough on a pass, which makes the news — there are literally thousands of things that go right every day.”

Johnson has managed the state corrections system twice during his long career in state government, serving as deputy director for corrections from 2007 to 2010, and again from 2020 to 2022. Gov. Josh Green elevated him from deputy director to director of the department last December.

Johnson has also worked as administrator of the Hawaii Paroling Authority, where he served from 2001 to 2007, and again from 2010 to 2020. HPA is administratively attached to the Department of Public Safety.

Given his tenure of more than 21 years in the department and more than five years in charge of the state’s prisons and jails, critics of the department have questioned whether Johnson is the right choice to reform what is obviously a broken system.

Conditions are particularly poor in Hawaii’s overcrowded jails, where detainees are held while they await trial, and petty offenders serve out shorter sentences for less serious crimes.

The newly created Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission has finally provided a window the public can use to peek into the prisons and jails, and even a state judge acknowledged he was shocked at the conditions inside.

The department occasionally sponsors media tours of correctional facilities, but understandably does not provide open access to the public or the media. That means many of the problems inside have been hidden from public view for years.

For example, while prison officials usually publicize escapes as they occur, until recently they did not publicly announce the deaths of inmates as other states do. They also do not announce suicides, and in years past even failed to disclose basic information about inmate murders and a riot.

Johnson points out that some of the problems in the system can be blamed on a lack of funding.

State lawmakers have not funded the department’s requests for money for new facilities — or even for maintenance of the old ones — and he told the commission last month that the Legislature cut 90% from the department’s request for construction funding.

Those cuts “put us back two years on maintenance issues,” Johnson told the commission.

The department has also been trying for years to move ahead with plans to develop a new jail to replace the Oahu Community Correctional Center, which is the state’s largest jail. That likely will cost $500 million or more, but the overcrowded existing jail is both obsolete and in poor condition.

Johnson told the oversight commission last month that “it is only a matter of time before Department of Justice comes knocking on our door about OCCC.” He said conditions at the jail “to some degree are inhumane,” and federal authorities might finally intervene to force the state to correct the problem.

Funding to replace OCCC was not included in the House or Senate budget proposals, but Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz has said he wants to discuss a “possible lease-buy back” arrangement for a new jail.

No specific details have been made public on that proposal yet, but it may involve an agreement to have a private entity finance and develop a new jail. The state could then lease the new facility to house Hawaii inmates.

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