HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State Public Safety Director Ted Sakai has suspended recruitment of new corrections officers and postponed the start of the latest recruit class to beef up testing and training of the people who work in state prisons, Hawaii News Now learned Wednesday. The situation has caused some recruits to be paid by the state without going to work.
After numerous errors by corrections officers resulted in the escape of murder suspect Teddy Munet last month, Sakai said he needed to move quickly.
"We want people who are, number one, better qualified to do this professional job as correctional officer. Number two, we're going to put them through a pretty rigorous training program," Sakai said. "Recent events have brought this whole issue into sharp focus and I felt that we simply have to make a change. We have to make the change now."
So he's suspending recruitment for up to three months, while the department creates application tests that do not exist now, for a job that does not require a high school diploma.
"I want to have a competency test assessment, I want to have a psychological, I want to make sure we have a test to ensure that they can read and write at a high school level," Sakai said.
Sakai has also postponed for one week the next training class of 31 correction officer recruits, to toughen up basic training.
"It's how to talk to an inmate, how to search a cell, how to put the handcuffs on properly, all of these things," Sakai said.
He said some on-the-job training could be added to the ten-week training period.
"Some of the training that's been done in a classroom setting might be better suited to be done in a real setting, at a facility," Sakai said.
Sakai also wants to improve recruits' evaluations to make sure that those who complete training are capable of doing their jobs.
This delay means those 31 guards-in-training are being paid $836 each by the state this week to stay home and do nothing. The class was originally set to begin March 7 but recruits will instead begin orientation on March 15 with more formal training starting March 22, Sakai said.
"We had already made job offers and people had, some people had already resigned from their previous jobs. So it simply would not have been fair to them to not train them," Sakai said. "I'd rather suck this cost at this point, rather than live with the long-term cost over the next 20 years if we pass the wrong person."
State Sen. Will Espero (D- Ewa Beach) chairs the State Senate Public Safety Committee.
"This is certainly a positive step in the right direction. We want to have well-qualified, trained individuals within our corrections and prisons system," Espero said.
But Espero called it a "waste of money" to not begin orientation for future corrections officers this week.
"I certainly believe that that time period can be used a little bit more wisely," Espero added.
Espero plans to hold a special legislative hearing looking into the escape of an accused murderer and also a homicide behind bars at Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Sakai said training is just the start of changes to come in the Department of Public Safety.
"We're going to have to look at how they are supervised, at all of our policies and procedures, how they are carried out on a day-to-day basis, how we manage our facilities so we know that the basic policies are being carried out," Sakai said. "Our job is public safety and we owe it to the people to make sure that we get the best possible people working in our correctional facilities."
He said the situation in Hawaii's prisons is "almost like rebuilding the system."
Sakai summed things up with the following analogy: "We've been trying to fix this plane while it's in flight. And what we're doing is saying 'Let's land this and fix it before we take off again.'"