EXCLUSIVE: Nearly half of prison guard applicants fail tougher new test

Published: Aug. 15, 2013 at 9:46 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 24, 2013 at 6:37 PM HST
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Ted Sakai; Public Safety Director
Ted Sakai; Public Safety Director

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state prison system is increasing requirements for people applying to become corrections officers and already weeded out some sub-standard applicants during its first more difficult application test earlier this month.

After the embarrassing court house escape of murder suspect Teddy Munet in February, the state suspended recruitment of new corrections officers for several months while it created tougher application tests.

Previously, would-be prison guards only had to pass a physical agility test and go through an interview to get hired for a job where trainees start at about $41,000 a year.

But that has changed.

"So when you come to us, you're going to have to show that you got the kind of competencies you need in terms of awareness, in terms of ability to relate to other people, etc," said Public Safety Director Ted Sakai, who oversees the state's prison system.

Sakai said the first new tougher test was conducted on Maui August 1.  Out of 45 corrections officer applicants, just 24 or 53 percent of them passed. That means nearly half of them flunked.

The state has hired a mainland company called Ergometrics. It will pay Ergonomics roughly $29,000 for the first year to use their tests measuring basic skills such as whether applicants can maintain accurate counts of inmates entering and leaving a room.

"This assessment will include some character issues like do you use drugs, are you willing to come to work on a holiday, you know that kind of thing," Sakai said.

A Hawaii News Now investigation earlier this month revealed high absentee rates at Oahu Community Correctional Center coinciding with dates that major sports games are broadcast.  For instance, 45 percent of the OCCC called in sick on Feb. 3, the day of the Super Bowl football contest.

As part of the new test, guard applicants also will watch a video of an incident and have to write a report about it, something that was never required before.

"We're going to include a writing test to make sure that you can communicate at a high school level or better," Sakai said.

Corrections officers still are not required to have a high school diploma. It's up to the state Department of Human Resources Development to decide whether to change that requirement, but the Public Safety Department can change its testing requirements, prison officials said.

Classroom time for trainees will be reduced from ten to eight weeks, so they can receive from training sergeants seven days of continued instruction inside the prison where they will work, prisons officials said. That's followed by two weeks of hands-on training as the recruits shadow a seasoned guard at the prison.

"Instead of saying 'OK, you're now at OCCC.  Here's your post.  Go work.' We're going to have somebody who's going to mentor you," Sakai said. "The facility staff will be more involved in the training.  They'll have more of a stake."

Before recruits are allowed to graduate, final testing will more hands-on as well.

"A load of inmates are ready to go in a van," Sakai said, laying out a final exam example question. "What do you do? Instead of writing out the answer, we're going to give them a practical exam.  Here are four inmates ready to go to the van.  Show us how you going to do this."

Sakai said he's working on re-instituting a psychological test for corrections officer applicants that was discontinued several years ago.

The tougher application process might satisfy critics inside and outside of the prison system who said hiring of prison guards in the past has been marred by favoritism, such as people hiring their friends and relatives, resulting in some unqualified staff working behind bars.

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