Status on Hawaii inmates in mainland prisons

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - When Governor Neil Abercrombie took office last year, he said his priority was to tackle the state's prison overcrowding problem - that includes bringing home some 1,700 Hawaii prisoners locked up in mainland corrections centers. So, we wondered: what's the status?

Saguaro and Red Rock correctional centers in Eloy, Arizona sit about 3,000 miles from the islands. It's home to more than a quarter of Hawaii's prisoners. The governor's pledge to bring them back is part and parcel of an overhaul of the state's packed prisons.

"The issue really is: as a policy, do you really want to be sending your inmates and spending your money on the mainland versus locally?" says Senator Will Espero, Chairman of the Committee on Public Safety.

Last year, the state hired the Texas non-profit group Council of State Governments Justice Center – which has expertise in prison reform. The group helped craft the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, JRI, which identified inefficiencies and backlogs within our corrections system and ways to improve them.

"It's freeing up beds here through a more efficient process … means the state doesn't then have to send them somewhere else due to a lack of beds," says Andy Barbee of Justice Center. "The prisoners won't so much be brought back, as there will be fewer prisoners sent."

In part, the recommendations call for treatment and educational programs better-suited for low-risk prisoners so they can do their minimum time and transition back into the community faster, with better supervision.

Barbee adds, "There won't be any kind of overnight bringing back of people who are in Arizona. They will continue to serve out their sentences, and as efficiencies are gained and these bottlenecks are removed from the system, the need to send them to Arizona will decrease."

Further options to help include re-opening the Big Island's Kulani facility, expanding Waiawa, and building a new prison at Puunene on Maui, but critics say: hold on.

"Definitely, they're pushing this thing too fast." Honolulu city prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro favors expanding facilities but says the JRI hasn't defined what a low-risk inmate is. He believes Hawaii doesn't have the resources and programs available right now to handle a mass release.

Kaneshiro says, "You put in place the infrastructure. Hire more probation officers. You hire more parole officers to supervise these people, and you have more drug treatment programs. Then you can consider how you're going to release these people."

The bottom line: there's no easy fix or consensus to the prison problem, but all do agree the status quo isn't solving the prison problem.

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