Prisoners often face an uphill battle to complete drug and behavioral programs required by the parole board.

The Hawaii Paroling Authority held over 1,800 hearings for nearly 1,500 inmates seeking parole in fiscal year 2022. Over 70% of those hearings ended with the inmate remaining in prison, according to the most recent annual report.

It didn’t break down the reasons. But a recent review of parole hearings by the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission shed light on one major concern.

Many parole requests were denied or deferred because inmates didn’t complete treatment programs that were required but unavailable, often due to staffing, Covid-related delays or a lack of offerings at various facilities, the report found.

Carrie Ann Shirota, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union, experienced the problem firsthand with a prisoner she was representing. She said it’s unfair to keep inmates behind bars because of conditions beyond their control.

“If we were to have students fail and not graduate from high school because the Department of Education does not offer certain classes needed to graduate, there would be outrage in our community,” Shirota said.

Hawaii Community Correctional Center located in Hilo.
A recent review of parole hearings by the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission found that many parole denials came because of inmates not completing their programming. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The state Correctional System Oversight Commission reviewed two days of parole hearings held by the Hawaii Paroling Authority in late June for Hawaii prisoners at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona.

It found that many parole denials “were due to incomplete recommended programs,” including some that were unavailable to inmates “due to waitlists, waiting period requirements, and programs not being offered.”

While the review was limited in scope, the commission’s oversight coordinator Christin Johnson said it reflects a problem at all Hawaii correctional facilities. Parole requirements differ individually, but usually focus on cognitive skills training classes and substance abuse treatment.

The possibility of inmates being jailed longer than necessary takes on added significance amid concerns about overcrowding and efforts to reset the system to focus on rehabilitation.

Study Of Effectiveness Needed

Christin Johnson and others also question the effectiveness of programs that are offered by the state Department of Public Safety, noting the lack of data to show success of the programs in helping inmates reintegrate into society and avoid ending up back in jail.

“If we’re requiring these programs that have no type of research or background to show that effectiveness that’s going to prevent recidivism, what are we doing?” Johnson asked.

Department of Public Safety officials acknowledged that some inmates are unable to complete requisite programs before a hearing date because of a lack of availability but noted others simply don’t start the programs until it’s too late.

Department of Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson said officials are doing their best with the limited resources available.

“There is no way we can expand the programs to get all of them in when they want to go in,” he said. “We hold the maximum amount of classes we can, given the staffing and resources we have.”

Inmates completing certain drug treatment programs “have a better chance of success than those who do not,” Johnson said. But when asked for evidence of this, Johnson said the department hasn’t “done that deep dive yet.”

Program Bottlenecks

Shirota’s client had been granted parole supervision in an October 2020 hearing contingent on the completion of an intensive drug treatment program known as RDAP III. Her client, a prisoner at Saguaro, was less than a month away from doing so when the program was suspended due to a Covid lockdown.

Doubly frustrating for Shirota was that her client was required to complete RDAP for a second time. “When you mandate somebody to do it again and again, what is the justification for it,” Shirota said. Her client was finally granted parole in the spring of 2021, just a few months before he was set to finish his sentence.

CCA Arizona Saguaro Correctional Center sign. 5 march 2016
Many Hawaii prisoners are held at the Saguaro Correctional Center due to crowded conditions in Hawaii facilities. Parole authorities travel to the state to hold hearings. (Cory Lum/CivilBeat/2016)

Chair of the Hawaii Paroling Authority Fred Hyun likened repeating programs to a repeat viewing of a movie. “You might have learned a little bit more or seen other things which you didn’t the first time around,” Hyun said.

“The question they’re missing is, should people have been watching that particular movie in the first place,” said Shirota.

DPS provided data on program waitlists but cautioned that the priority lists are not representative of program capacity because inmates on the lists may elect not to participate.

Saguaro has 569 inmates on a priority list for substance abuse programming – in 2022, 151 inmates, or just over 25% of the current priority list, graduated from this programming. In Hawaii facilities, 213 inmates are on the substance abuse priority list – in 2022, 54 inmates enrolled in this programming, or just over 25% of the current priority list.

Several reports indicate that an inability to access programming has been a long-standing problem. A 2018 report from the Research and Evaluation in Public Safety Project found that only 156 of an estimated 3,200 inmates on Oahu had access to needed substance abuse programming. 

Similar issues persisted in the cognitive classes, with only 328 men in Halawa Correctional facility able to participate in such programming in 2017, despite demand estimated as high as 800. 

An additional 2019 report from DPS itself found that of parole eligible men from 2006-2011, 70% were deferred parole to “complete bottle-necked prison-based programming.”

Logistical Concerns

Beyond staffing and resource constraints, the logistics of the prison system can leave some inmates stuck in a facility that doesn’t offer what they need. 

Halawa Correctional Facility is a medium-security prison that does not offer RDAP or KASHBOX, common residential drug treatment programs required for parole. That means inmates would need to qualify to be transferred to a minimum-security facility such as Waiawa, where the programs are offered.

“It’s significantly easier to make a mistake and move to a higher level in the system than it is to work your way down,” Christin Johnson said. “So that’s definitely a huge issue.”

Tommy Johnson said that determining the effectiveness of prison programs is at the top of his list as part of an impending transition to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“We hold the maximum amount of classes we can, given the staffing and resources we have.”

DPS Director Tommy Johnson

But past Public Safety Department reports have noted glaring weaknesses in programming. In 2017, the Research and Evaluation in Public Safety Project reviewed the KASHBOX program and found it “collected little or no data on its participants” preventing “any kind of analytical or quantitative evaluation.”

KASHBOX staff also “had no previous exposure to or understanding of best practices in their field of work” and had “general competency” issues that included computer illiteracy, according to the report.

In an email, Ed Suarez, who led the project at the time, said the report was not well received by DPS and the project was terminated soon after the report. 

“DPS is unlike any other state department I know of in terms of their lack of guiding documents such as basic policies and procedures or even a working strategic plan,” Suarez said in an email.

When done effectively, prison programming ranging from drug treatment, job training and educational courses has been shown to play a critical role in rehabilitation and preventing freed inmates from landing back in prison.

“We do know that high quality programs that build in a behavioral component are associated with lower recidivism,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a retired criminologist and women’s studies professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa. She added that the problem is it’s not known if Hawaii’s prison programs are high quality.

“We’re destroying people’s lives by keeping them in facilities longer than they need to be there,” Chesney-Lind said. “You’re punishing people for not participating in programming, even though you have no idea if the programming that is being delivered has any impact at all on recidivism.”

A 2019 report from the Hawaii Interagency Council on Intermediate Sanctions found that inmates who serve their full sentence are nearly 14% more likely to be re-arrested within three years than inmates who are paroled.

‘It was crazy’

As an attorney in the public defender’s office, Taryn Tomasa has appeared in front of the parole board countless times. Parole denial for incomplete programming happens “all the time,” she said. 

But Tomasa has also seen the board require programs of clients with little justification. 

Tomasa had one client whose parole was revoked with a recommendation for a cognitive training class. Tomasa’s client was scheduled to appear before the parole board in roughly four months, but in that time, the facility her client was at didn’t offer the needed class. At her client’s parole hearing, the board deferred a decision four months so that her client could complete the class, which was going to start up in the next few months.

After completing the cognitive class, Tomasa’s client returned before the board but was then told she needed to complete a drug treatment program before she could be paroled, a requirement that had not come up in previous hearings, the lawyer said.

“It was crazy,” Tomasa said. “It’s really cruddy for the inmates, and it’s frustrating for us as their attorney.”

Hyun said he could not discuss specific hearings but stressed everything is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. 

Tomasa wrote to the board and secured a new hearing this August – roughly a year since her client’s original parole revocation. 

“Being incarcerated be downright dangerous,” Tomasa said. “You may be on your way out, but an extra week, month, two months. It can be devastating.”

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