Contraband screening machine down for 4 years at Halawa Prison

Contraband screening machine down for 4 years at Halawa Prison

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A machine to screen employees and visitors to the state's high-security Halawa Prison for drugs and other contraband has been broken for at least four years at the facility where guards have recently been busted for drugs.

In January, Mark Damas, 45, was one of two Halawa Prison corrections officers arrested for smuggling drugs into the facility.

James "Kimo" Sanders, 31, another guard at Halawa, was indicted for methamphetamine trafficking and bribery.

Shortly after those arrests, Ted Sakai, the head of state prisons, said this about prison staff: "They should be searched going in."

For years, prison guards and all other staff arriving at Halawa have not gone through contraband detection machines before entering the facility.

A machine was installed using federal grant money at Halawa to screen people for drugs and other contraband in 2009, but lack of maintenance caused it to break down within a year and it hasn't worked since, a state prisons spokeswoman said.

Sakai said the state is negotiating with United Public Workers -- the union that represents prison guards -- before the state begins automated screening of employees again.

"This is a serious matter. All policies affecting employees need to be worked out with the unions before we can implement changes and announce anything to the public," Sakai said in a statement.

A UPW spokesperson did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

State Sen. Will Espero chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee that oversees prisons.

"Well it is certainly long overdue and hopefully we'll have some agreement in the very short term, near future," Espero said.

Right now, prisons employees carrying a bag or package to work have those items searched by hand, but they do not go through any search of their bodies for contraband.

It's too early to estimate when prison employee screening might re-start, what the procedures will be and whether new equipment will be purchased, a prison spokeswoman said.

"It does appear like there is now positive movement going on, especially in light of some of the recent busts that have happened at Halawa," Espero said.

Visitors to Halawa, such as family members of inmates and lawyers, are subject to pat-down searches of their bodies, because the machine is broken, a prisons spokeswoman said.

Oahu Community Correctional Center, which also received a screening machine in 2009 with a federal grant, uses the machine to screen visitors.  The machine has occasional maintenance issues and is down from time to time, a spokeswoman said, but it is currently working.

A prisons official who asked to remain anonymous said the state has failed to negotiate with UPW to allow body screening of employees for years because the union "has a stranglehold" on the state.

The head of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the union that represents prison social workers, medical and clerical staff, said prisons officials have yet to contact the HGEA to negotiate a change in search policies.

"Nobody wants contraband in the prisons," said Randy Perreira, HGEA's executive director.  "At this point, we don't have anything to react to, because the state hasn't presented us with any proposal in negotiations yet.

Since 2012, four Halawa guards have been charged with drug smuggling.  Sources said as many as eight other guards are under investigation for illegally dealing in contraband, which includes cigarettes which sell inside the prison for $600 a carton.

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