State's largest prison over capacity, with plumbing and cell lock problems

State's largest prison over capacity, with plumbing and cell lock problems
Published: Dec. 17, 2015 at 10:50 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 19, 2015 at 12:31 AM HST
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Halawa prison cell doors
Halawa prison cell doors

HALAWA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - An overloaded plumbing system is taking away much-needed prison cells at Halawa Prison, which is running at or over capacity.

The state's largest prison, which houses medium- and high-security inmates, has made some improvements but like many other prisons across the state, it suffers from two major problems: it's overcrowded and its facilities are very old.

The cells in Halawa's medium security facility were built in 1987 to house just one inmate each. But they all have double that now and every night some cells have three men in them with one sleeping on the floor.

"We have 1,124 beds and as of today, every bed is filled. So we're teetering on having to triple-bunk to address the influx of the population," said Warden Francis Sequeira. "We try to keep them off the floor. Just think of that scenario when your head is next to the toilet, it's not a pretty scene."

The daily population count Thursday was 1,126, (two more than the number of available beds), with 18 additional inmates arriving from the neighbor islands.

Sequeira said Halawa deals with the most difficult inmates that other facilities in Hawaii or on the mainland won't take: those with medical problems, the mentally ill, and inmates serving life terms who don't behave.

"So that's our biggest challenge, of trying to keep control over inmates that we know are incorrigible. Problematic because they can't go anywhere else and they know that," Sequeira said.

The new hands-free visitation area where inmates speak to friends and family through plexiglass has cut down on contraband coming into the facility and requires fewer guards to monitor visits.

Gov. David Ige is happy that prisons like Halawa have solved a long-standing problem.

"Most importantly, we've ended the practice of having to cancel family visitations," Ige told Hawaii News Now.

But Halawa is plagued with basic problems: The state plans to spend $10 million replacing every lock and door throughout the prison, after the system broke down in the fall of 2014.

Millions of dollars in upgrades are also planned for the nearly-30-year-old plumbing system whose toilets constantly backup. On Thursday, five cells were out of commission because of sewage leaks, adding to overcrowding.

"We're antiquated mechanically, our plumbing is God, we're built for 500 and we have 1124, so you can imagine everything is rotted out," Sequeira said.

The lock replacement project was originally scheduled to begin in March 2016, but prisons officials plan to do the lock and plumbing upgrades together, so the project won't get underway until next October.

The improvements will take more than a year to complete, since the prison will have to do the work one module at a time, and then move prisoners sequentially out of the old units and into the newly-fixed ones. Halawa plans to send nearly 250 prisoners to Saguaro Prison, a privately-run facility in Arizona, to free up space during the upgrades, costing another $6 million.

The state already houses about 1,500 inmates at Saguaro Prison to help ease prison overcrowding in the islands.

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