The Department of Public Safety is trying to determine the scope of the problem, and what it will take to fix it.

Electrical problems at the state’s largest prison have caused outages throughout the facility that left about 20% of the cells without power at one point last month, and it is unclear when the outages started or when they will be fixed.

The Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission learned of the continuing electrical failures during a tour of the Halawa Correctional Facility on Oct. 19, and were told some cells have gone for weeks without power.

“My understanding is it’s been going on for a while, maybe even months at this point,” said Christin Johnson, oversight coordinator for the commission. The commission was told it began with a power outage, and “it has been extremely difficult to get electricians in to fix the problem and actually keep it fixed.”

HCF is the largest and newest of the state’s correctional facilities, and opened in 1987. The 80-square-foot cells in the prison generally house two inmates each, and Halawa had a total population of 819 prisoners as of Nov. 13.

Halawa Correctional Facility tour 2019.
The Department of Public Safety says prison officials are diligently trying to determine the scope of the problem that is causing the electrical outages at Halawa Correctional Facility and to fix the problem. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Leaking roofs and deferred maintenance in the prison housing units were cited as problems in a 2003 master plan update for the state correctional system, and family members of inmates say prisoners continue to report water sometimes leaks into cells via light fixtures when it rains.

Department of Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson declined a request for an interview about Halawa’s electrical issues. Instead, the department issued a brief statement explaining Halawa “is an aging facility that has been requiring increasing levels of repair and maintenance over the years.”

“Once Halawa’s leadership became aware of the electrical issue in some of the cells, they have been vigilant in their attempts to determine the scope of the problem, what the repair will entail and the cost of the project,” the statement said. “The Department of Public Safety and the facility are working on securing funds to address the issue.”

Johnson said forcing inmates to sit in dark cells is “a clear violation of federal (correctional) standards,” and violates the inmates’ rights. It could even be considered unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment” to be left in the dark for long periods of time, she said.

The cells have windows to allow in light in the daytime, “but that’s a tough place to be,” Johnson said.

“The commission is extremely concerned about this. The commission has been extremely concerned about the conditions of confinement of people in the custody of the Department of Public Safety ever since the commission was formed.”

But Johnson stressed that the issue is not the fault of the current administration.

“These are years and years and years and years of built up problems that now suddenly the current administration is forced to deal with,” she said. The commission is trying to bring the problem to light in the hope that the department can get the funding it needs to fix the problem, she said.

Commissioner Martha Torney, who briefed the commission on the Halawa tour during a meeting in Hilo last week, also stressed the facility has not been properly maintained during the past 35 years.

“These are not problems that just happened in the last four years or whatever, these are long-term problems that escalated from lack of maintenance, which is very common in the state when it comes to state buildings,” she said.

She said the outages were affecting 20% of the cells when commission members visited last month. Some inmates were in the dark in their cells, while other cells “were not available for use at all,” she said.

Torney, a former deputy director of Public Safety, attributed the problem to “leakages that were coming in from the roof, so it was creating a very dangerous situation.”

Commission Chairman Mark Patterson said his understanding was the outages left scattered individual cells in the dark throughout the facility, but said staff at the prison did not say when the problem began.

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