ACLU files federal complaint over conditions at Hawaii prisons, jails

ACLU files federal complaint over conditions at Hawaii prisons, jails
Updated: Jan. 10, 2017 at 8:46 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii is calling on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Hawaii's chronically overcrowded prisons and jails.

A complaint filed by the ACLU last week said the overcrowding is fostering health and safety risks.

"What you have is cells that were designed for two inmates that now are housing four or five inmates. You have inmates sleeping on the floor next to leaky facets or toilets," said Mateo Caballero, legal director for the ACLU of Hawaii.

"The conditions of jails and prisons in Hawaii have not improved in the last 30 years."

According to a year-long study by the civil rights advocacy group, the populations in Hawaii's jails are nearly twice their original design capacities.

That includes:

  • Chronically overcrowded Oahu Community Correctional Center which has 1,109 inmates as of Nov. 30. The original design capacity was just 628, the ACLU said;
  • The Maui Community Correctional Center houses about 425 inmates, the ACLU said. It's original design capacity was for 209 beds;
  • The Kauai Community Correctional Center lists 207 inmates but was originally built for 110 prisoners.

The state had no immediate comment on the report.

"Reviewing the claims made in this letter will take time. The Attorney General will consult with the governor and the director of Public Safety and respond as appropriate," said Joshua Wisch, spokesman for the Attorney General's office.

Some point out that the prisons and jails have expanded over the past several years beyond their original design capacities.

For instance, the Department of Public Safety's website states that OCCC now has an operational capacity of 954 prisoners not 628, while MCCC has an operational capacity of 301 and not 209.

Potential relief could come in the form of a new jail. The state is currently planning for a newer and larger OCCC, and has recently identified 11 potential sites on Oahu.

The ACLU said it hopes the federal government conducts a thorough investigation into the existing overcrowding problem.

Caballero said the Justice Department can sue the state if the state doesn't do enough to address the problem.

But some prison reform advocates worry that the problem will get little attention under the Trump administration.

"I just wonder with the current climate in Washington, what would a federal complaint to the D.O.J. will result in?" said Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons.

If the federal government does nothing, the ACLU can file its own lawsuit.

That happened back in 1984 when the ACLU sued overcrowded conditions at OCCC and the Women's Community Correctional Center.

That eventually led to a consent decree, forcing the state to reduce the overcrowding. It took the state 14 years to get the consent decree lifted.

It its report, the ACLU cited numerous complaints from inmates over unsanitary and unhealthy conditions at the jails.

At the Halawa Correctional Facility, several prisoners complained about poor plumbing and faulty toilets that "causes the cell to smell of feces and urine," the report said.

A Hawaii Community Correctional Center inmate told the ACLU that the shower drains there back up so much that "the water is ankle deep with gunk" when inmates bathe.

One inmate said break outs of scabies and chicken pox are common but that prisoners aren't quarantine and left to infect others.

An OCCC inmate told the ACLU that food carts were often "littered with roaches" by the time meals are served.

"This report discloses many, many problems that are inherent in our correctional system," said Brady.

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