Chad Blair: Aloha everybody and welcome to another installment of the Pod Squad. As always, Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat. Today we’re talking jails, prisons and Arizona.

Joining us to have the discussion is reporter Rui Kaneya, good morning Rui.

Rui Kaneya: Good morning, how are you?

Blair: I’m fine. Rui traveled with our photographer, Cory Lum, to Arizona to visit Saguaro Correctional Center, about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix, and we are going to talk about that.

Also on the table today is Bob Ortega, our managing editor, who worked with Rui on the story.

Bob Ortega: Good morning.

Blair: Hello Bob. And Kat Brady from the Community Alliance on Prisons. I’m glad that Kat is here, she has been following prison reform issues for a very long time, and she’s also been to Arizona if I remember correctly.

Kat Brady: Yes I have.

Blair: Who could not make it with us today is Nolan Espinda or anybody else from the Department of Public Safety. We did extend an invitation. Spokesperson Tony Swartz said it couldn’t happen, but they were grateful for the invitation nonetheless.

Alright let’s start here, guys why do we have nearly 1,400 prisoners from Hawaii in Arizona?

Kaneya: We just have no room Chad. Basically we have an overcrowding situation in which we have about twice as many people locked up in jails and prisons here in Hawaii. We just don’t have any room anymore, so we decided 20 years ago back in 1995 to ship a whole bunch of people there and here we are.

Blair: Well what’s happening? Neal Abercrombie, the last governor, said we’re going to bring those people home. Now he’s out of office and we’ve got Gov. David Ige. Kat why has this been going on for 20 years?

Brady: Basically the frame that the department wants to use is we’re overcrowded, so we need to build something. Our position is, we have made laws and policies that have incarcerated people for things that got lighter sanctions many years ago. So we’re trying to figure out what is going on.

Blair: So you’re saying we’re putting too many people in our prisons and jails for offenses that really shouldn’t require them being in there?

Brady: They got much lighter sanctions, and that is directly from Jeremy Travis, the president of the John J. College of Criminal Justice.

Ortega: There’s an interesting point there Chad, which is, in recent years we have seen a number of states across the country implement various sentencing reforms to reduce the length of the sentences for a lot of non-violent crimes, and as a result of that, to reduce their prison population. And even in states that are considered very red, very conservative states such as Texas and Louisiana, we have seen as a result, both the numbers of people in prison go down without crime incidents rising.

Blair: And if I understand correctly, it’s also financially the smart thing to do, to not incarcerate more and more people. There’s a dollar figure at stake here, is that right?

Brady: Yes. And also one of the unintended consequences is that we create a criminal underclass by incarcerating people with other people who committed crimes of different degrees. Why are we doing this? We’re putting low-level people in with people who have committed bigger crimes and they’re learning.

Blair: Rui, one of the things that stayed with me with the story that you and Cory along with the Marshall Project that helped out with the series — the occasional series that we’re doing on prison reform — is how important it is for our inmates to stay in touch with their families and when that is lost, what you’re really doing is putting them at risk of not being able to reintegrate into society once they serve their terms. I wonder if you could talk about that.

Kaneya: Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of studies about that topic. Most of them talk about the fact that if you don’t have as much of a family tie with friends or people back home, if you don’t have that tie while you are incarcerated, you’re more likely when you come out, you just end up going back into prison.

Ortega: The particular way that people maintain ties usually is by family visits. So if you have a family member who’s incarcerated here near your home, you can go there and visit them every week. If they’re 3,000 miles away in Arizona, it’s much harder and much more expensive.

Blair: It’s one thing driving to Halawa Valley here on Oahu or the Oahu Community Correctional Center, OCCC, which is here in Kalihi. You actually traveled with Mahealani Meheula, is that right? Tell us a little bit about her story.

Kaneya: Yes, she has a boyfriend and a nephew locked up in Saguaro. I had a chance to tag along on her trip there last month. She had her brother and mother tag along with her too. The mother happened to live near Seattle, so she went there first, then traveled together to Phoenix, then drove down to Saguaro. So that entire trip of something along the line of 8,000 miles, the three of them, costing about $2,400 just to get down there for the weekend so they can see their loved ones for three days in a row and come back.

Blair: How good are the facilities at Saguaro? They are run by CCA.

Brady: Corrections Corporation of America.

Blair: I’ve heard there’s been some problems with how CCA runs its systems nationwide, but could you talk specifically to some of the things that have happened in Saguaro.

Brady: Well one of the things about Saguaro is that the staff is not unionized. When I was there, they looked like deer-in-the-headlights. There’s been murders, riots.

One thing that I found really interesting was, there were two murders in 2010, one in February when the person was in SHIP 2, which is lockdown, 22 hours a day. In the two hours his cell was open, he was murdered. In June of that same year another young man was murdered. The sad part is that both of them were in for very minor things. They shouldn’t even have been in Arizona, so that’s a huge problem.

Then in July there was a riot over some video game. Apparently the warden rushed into this module and the guys rushed him. He rushed out and left an officer there who got beaten up. I’m thinking, wow, they’re not even protecting their own staff, how can we possibly think they would care about our people?

Blair: Bob, you were a journalist in Arizona for a number of years, did you pay attention to the prison system in Saguaro?

Ortega: Not so much Saguaro directly, but at the time that I was working I did actually cover prisons in Arizona for the Arizona Republic, and at the time I was doing that, CCA was one of several companies bidding to provide private prison services to the state of Arizona. So I looked into their operations quite a bit, and there is a very long history of various problems at a number of CCA prisons around the country. Now CCA officials, when they spoke with Rui for this story, insisted that that’s all old news and that there’s really no reason to be concerned.

One point that I think is important, that Rui could perhaps talk about a little bit is that, the huge issue you find with privatized prisons is oversight. In the case of Hawaii, because it’s 3,000 miles away, one of the things we see from the state auditor is that there’s relatively little oversight.

Kaneya: Yeah, we have a nine-person mainland branch inside of the Public Safety Department, and it’s suppose to oversee what’s going on over there in Arizona, except all of them are here except one contract person who is stationed over there at the prison. My understanding is that they make quarterly visits to do the monitoring. But you know, just the sheer distance from here, you’re talking about 3,000 miles away, any incident that happens, like last year when this kid was murdered, people have to make a trip down there instead of you talking about it a day or two after the incident. And in order to do any good investigation, obviously that’s just too big of a lag time.

Blair: Time is of the essence in investigations like these.

Kaneya: Right. And when the public, or us the reporters, try to look into how they have been doing the monitoring, most of the information is kind of withheld. They give a whole bunch of different reasons, some of that having to do with privacy reasons of the inmates, sometimes they call it the “frustration government function.”

Blair: “Legitimate frustration,” they often use that word.

Kaneya: Yeah, that’s kind of the catch-all phrase that they try to throw out quite a bit. Basically we don’t know how they do things and how they actually oversee the company that we are contracting with, that’s something that we’ll try to write about in the next installment.

Ortega: There’s a vast lack of transparency. The lack of transparency with regard to Hawaii in particular is worst than most other states.

Brady: Yes, and it’s really interesting because the monitor from Hawaii who’s stationed there, I’ve asked the guys (inmates), “so have you met with the monitor,” and they go, “who’s that?” So, they’ve never met with that person.

And then I said, “well what happens when we do the quarterly trips?” Because sometimes they send people from the medical unit, they send security, they send a cadre of people. I said, “so how do they interact with the inmates?”

So if somebody that is incarcerated wants to talk with a monitor, what do they do? They file a request. I said, “so, how many people actually gets to visit with the monitor?”

“Oh I haven’t met any.”

They said when the monitors come, they kind of hug the wall opposite the cells, but they don’t ever look or talk to the people.

Wait one minute, we’re spending a half a million dollars a year on this department when all they’re doing is going in and looking at the files. We could be doing that electronically and saving a lot of money!

So, what is going on is, we don’t monitor. Let’s be honest honest about that — we don’t monitor. We take their word for it. When there’s a problem, and I have pointed out contract violations, saying, “this is what’s happening, this is the contract clause,” they say, “oh they fixed that.”

I say, “well how do you know that?”

“Oh, because they called and told us they fixed it.”

And I say, “well what do you think they’re going to do, say we didn’t fix it but we’d like your check anyway?” Come on.

Blair: It goes to Bob’s point of not only transparency, but accountability.

Just quickly, CCA is a for-profit company is it not?

Brady: Oh yeah.

Blair: A for-profit company in the business of incarceration, that seems oxymoronic in a way to me.

We can talk much more about the prison system in Arizona, but the core reason here is that we don’t have the space at home to house them.

I wonder if we could just end this Pod Squad briefly with how things are going at the Legislature. Kat, I’ve seen you down there nearly every day. I know Rui has been following this, what is the latest on tearing down OCCC in Kalihi and rebuilding it perhaps in Halawa Valley?

Brady: That’s really what the department and the administration wants to do. We have a lot of problems with that. They originally asked for $489.3 million dollars for a new OCCC at Halawa. When the bill went through, the first iteration of the bill just said no environmental impact study (EIS). We’re not doing an EIS. No impact study for the community.

Blair: Courts are always happy to hear about that.

Brady: And we’re saying there’s leaking fuel tanks at Red Hill and that site is adjacent. There’s apparently fuel tanks in the mountains at the back of the valley where they want to build, that’s a huge problem. There’s no public transportation. Jails are very dynamic populations with people moving in and out. Lots of people with mental health problem, who have families who visit every week. I don’t think everybody can afford to have a car to drive in there. You’ve basically said, “yes we support re-entry, but we’re not going to really do anything to help it.”

Blair: So did they put the EIS clause back in?

Brady: No, what they’ve done is actually put some language that I found really interesting… “aligning environmental impact statement and assessment requirements for a jail with generally applicable requirements.” What the heck does that mean?

This bill (HB 2388) is so screwed up that I didn’t even know how to approach it. I just went through it line by line and said, “what does this mean, we don’t know what this is.”

Blair: Maybe Rui can jump on that next. Rui, even if they do move forward on the OCCC, and from what I understand Kat, they’ve cut the funding down to 10 percent of the original or something to that effect, is that right?

Brady: Yes.

Blair: Rui, even if they do manage to move OCCC and rebuild it in Halawa, that’s going to take time isn’t it? And what are they going to do with all the guys that are in OCCC in the meantime?

Kaneya: I think what they’re talking about is a five- to seven-year process if they do it really quick. You’re talking about moving people from Kalihi to Halawa, so that’s just moving people around, which is okay, except it doesn’t really build extra capacity. So if you’re talking about what to do with people in Arizona, nothing is going to happen to them because there’s no space for them still. We have to wait until this five- to seven-year process is done, and then we can talk about building extra capacity somewhere else so what we have more room to bring them back. Or, like Kat was talking about, change the system so we don’t have to incarcerate as many people. So either of those two things has to happen.

Brady: Something that’s got to be clarified is that, Saguaro is a prison that’s for people that are sentenced for a year or more. Oahu Correctional Community Center, Maui Correctional Community Center, Kauai Correctional Community Center and the Hawaii Correctional Community Center, they’re all jails. Those are for people who are sentenced for a year or less.

Blair: Good point.

Bob, final word with you.

Ortega: Well just one thing; what we’re not seeing in the Legislature this session is any meaningful effort at any kind of sentencing reform or other practices that would reduce the number of people going into prison, or how long they’re staying there, or what is avaliable to them when they get out. Those are all issues that would reduce the overall population, but we’re not seeing any effort to address that.

Brady: Well there was one effort actually — the Penal Code Review Committee 2561. I served on the Penal Code Review Committee, I was not real popular and I didn’t get everything I wanted, but we did get something that was really good and that’s increasing the felony theft threshold. We have been at $300 dollars since 1986, we got it moved to $750 dollars.

This was a huge committee, 29 people with judges, many of whom were former prosecutors, a small cadre of defense attorneys. The bottom line is that a bill came out, we all voted, we said our things that we liked and didn’t like about it, we went by majority and we made recommendations. At the hearings the prosecutors came in and started talking about stuff that we never discussed. It is so frustrating because they are the gatekeepers of the system.

Sylvia Luke talked at a budget briefing about a guy who was put in OCCC for stealing a $1.99 energy drink. So, for a $145 dollars a day, we’re going to incarcerate somebody for stealing a $1.99 drink. Something is really wrong.

Blair: Bob, fair to say that part of our editorial mission going forward will be to continue focusing on what really has mostly been a lack of serious prison reform here in the state? It’s something that Rui I’m sure is going to focus on as well.

Ortega: Yes, that and the oversight of the prison system.

Blair: A lot more to talk about, we can go on and on, but we’re just getting started.

Rui Kaneya, reporter extraordinaire, Bob Ortega, our managing editor, and Kat Brady with the Community Alliance on Prisons, thank you so much for joining us.

Remember, subscribe to us on iTunes and Stitcher, visit our site at, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For another episode of the Pod Squad, as always Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat.