Potential costs are more than money
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Staff Writer
A decade ago, Hawai'i began exporting inmates to Mainland prisons in what was supposed to be a temporary measure to save money and relieve overcrowding in state prisons. Now, the state doesn't seem to be able to stop.
With little public debate or study, the practice of sending prisoners away has become a predominant feature of Hawai'i's corrections policy, with nearly half of the state's prison population — 1,828 inmates — held in privately operated facilities in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arizona and Kentucky at a cost of $36 million this year.
Hawai'i already leads all other states in holding the highest percentage of its prison population in out-of-state correctional centers, and if Hawai'i policymakers continue on their present course, by the end of 2006 there likely will be more inmates housed in Mainland prisons than at home.
Frank Lopez, acting director of the Department of Public Safety, said that with no quick answers to prison overcrowding, Hawai'i has few other options for dealing with its increasing population of convicted criminals.
A growing chorus of critics disagrees, saying the state has failed to pursue alternatives. Opponents charge that buying space in Mainland prisons has allowed Hawai'i politicians to defer tough decisions on crime and punishment, and that the state economy is losing tens of millions each year that would be spent locally on prison construction, services and employment.
Although public safety officials say the private companies that house Hawai'i inmates have generally done a good job, the history of Mainland prison placements is pockmarked with reports of contract violations, riots, drug smuggling, and allegations of sexual assaults of women inmates. Former prisons chief Keith Kaneshiro says years in Mainland prisons have instilled a dangerous gang culture in Hawai'i inmates that has spread back to the Islands and will present problems for local corrections officials for years to come.
There is also concern that inmates who are incarcerated on the Mainland lose touch with their families, increasing the likelihood they will return to crime once they are released.
Robert Perkinson, a University of Hawai'i assistant professor of American studies, called the state's prison policy "completely backward."
"None of this makes sense if your goal is to make the citizens of Hawai'i safer and use your tax dollars as effectively as you can to make the streets safer, based on the best available research that we have," said Perkinson, who is writing a book on the Texas prison system.
Marilyn Brown, assistant professor of sociology at UH-Hilo, said Hawai'i's out-of-state inmate transfers are a strange throwback to corrections policies of two or three centuries ago, when felons were banished to penal colonies in Australia or the New World.
Unlike those in the old penal colonies, Brown said, almost all of the Hawai'i inmates eventually will return home: The average prison stay for male inmates released over the past five years in Hawai'i was 765 days, while the average prison stay for women was 449 days.
"Our people are coming back, but in what condition?" Brown asked.
COST SAVINGS AT A PRICE
Officials estimate the cost of housing an inmate in a state-run prison in Hawai'i is $105 per day, compared with an average of $58 per day in a Mainland facility.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Hawai'i spent $31 million on Mainland prisons. Using the state's per-day estimates, Hawai'i taxpayers saved more than $25 million in the past fiscal year over what would have been spent to house the same number of inmates here.
Most of the $36 million being spent this year on out-of-state prison accommodations will go to Corrections Corp. of America, a pioneer in the private corrections industry. The company holds about 62,000 inmates nationwide, including about 1,750 men from Hawai'i in prisons in Oklahoma, Arizona and Mississippi.
Last week the state transferred 80 Hawai'i women inmates from a prison in Brush, Colo., owned by GRW Corp. to Otter Creek Correctional Center, a CCA prison in Wheelwright, Ky.
Those selected for Mainland transfers generally are felons with at least several years left on their sentences who have no major health problems or pending court cases that would require their presence in Hawai'i. Private prison contractors have the final say, and can reject troublesome inmates with a history of misconduct.
In addition to the 3,746 Hawai'i inmates held in prisons in the state and on the Mainland, the Department of Public Safety has approximately 2,122 prisoners at community correctional centers, often referred to as jails, on Kaua'i, Maui, Hawai'i and O'ahu. These are pretrial detainees and inmates serving short-term sentences or nearing release.
The department is expected to seek money to send an additional 450 inmates to the Mainland, a move that would increase annual spending on out-of-state prison beds to more than $43 million.
Ted Sakai, who ran the state prison system from 1998 to 2002, said it will always be cheaper to house inmates on the Mainland because of labor costs, which are considerably lower in the rural communities where many prisons are. But there are benefits to keeping prison jobs here, he said.
"I think you have to look at the economic value of having that enterprise in your own state and that multiplier effect" as wages and other spending ripple through the economy, Sakai said.
But with estimates of the cost of building a new prison in Hawai'i soaring to as much as $200 million for 1,000 beds, and many other competing and more popular projects such as schools and roads, lawmakers have been unwilling to put up money for a new in-state prison.
House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), said he is "very much concerned" that Hawai'i is approaching the point where more than half its prison population is housed on the Mainland. With no other place to put them, there will be few options but to keep them in out-of-state facilities indefinitely, leaving the state vulnerable to price increases by private contractors, he said.
MORE GO EACH YEAR
When Hawai'i sent its first batch of 300 inmates to private prisons in Texas in 1995, the state had no intention of using the practice as a long-term corrections strategy. But the raw numbers took charge: Hawai'i's prison population has nearly doubled since 1991, and the state has not built a new prison since the Halawa Correctional Facility opened in 1987.
Even after inmates had been sent to the Mainland, prison consultant Carter Goble Associates reported in 2003 that Hawai'i's prisons and jails on average were still overcrowded, at 111 percent of their rated capacities.
In what has become an almost annual ritual at the Legislature, public safety officials remind lawmakers of the inevitable growth of the prison population, the issue is discussed and more money is provided to ship more inmates out of state. Political opposition to the Mainland transfers has been bipartisan but largely impotent.
In 2000, state House Republican leaders scolded then-Gov. Ben Cayetano for proposing to lease more prison beds on the Mainland. House Minority Leader Galen Fox said doing so would be bad for the state's economy and the inmates' families.
An Advertiser poll of Democrats and Republicans before the start of the Legislature's 2003 session found a majority of state lawmakers opposed the practice. Republican Gov. Linda Lingle also has said she is opposed to sending more prisoners away.
Yet spending on Mainland prisons has steadily increased over the past 10 years, and politicians have failed to take action on alternatives.
"I think that philosophically we would agree we have to bring everyone home, but when we deal with the money issues, it doesn't happen," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa.
Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), said she can't imagine how the inmates will be returned anytime soon. There aren't nearly enough prison cells in Hawai'i to house them, there is no money set aside yet to build more cells, and planning and construction of a new prison likely would take years.
Looking longer term, Hanabusa said she finds it hard to believe lawmakers would agree to spend the millions of dollars needed to add enough in-state prison beds so Mainland inmates could be brought home.
The Department of Public Safety announced an updated master plan in 2003 that proposed spending $1 billion over the next 10 years. The plan would more than double the capacity of the correctional system by building new facilities and expanding existing prisons and jails until there are finally enough beds to accommodate all of the state's inmates.
"I doubt that anyone's going to champion that $1 billion when the schools need repairs," Hanabusa said. "It's not like air-conditioning in classrooms. It doesn't rise high in terms of elected officials' priorities, but I'm sure for those families that have inmates on the Mainland, it is a concern."
NEW PRISONS OPPOSED
The recent history of prison construction in Hawai'i suggests Hanabusa may be right.
Cayetano and fellow Democratic Gov. John Waihee both asked for money for a new prison during the 1990s, but legislators instead chose to spend the state's limited construction money elsewhere.
The Cayetano administration explored several options for privately built or privately operated facilities on the Big Island and O'ahu, but each proposal was thwarted by political resistance or opposition from communities near suggested prison sites.
Lingle campaigned in 2002 on a promise to build two 500-bed secure "treatment facilities," but three years later, no specifics have been provided on when or where the projects might be built.
Her administration has focused instead on replacing the state's aging jails, an enormous and expensive undertaking that will take years and consume hundreds of millions of dollars. So far, lawmakers have provided money to plan for replacements for the community correctional centers on Kaua'i, Maui and O'ahu, and for a new jail in Kona.
But those projects won't make it possible to return inmates from the Mainland because they involve jails, where prisoners are confined to await trial or serve sentences of one year or less. Prisons, such as the Mainland facilities, are designed to hold convicted felons serving longer terms.
Lopez, the public safety director, said his department is focusing first on local jails, whose occupants must be kept in state to be available for court appearances or to prepare for release.
With construction of a new prison nowhere on the horizon, Lopez said he wouldn't be surprised if the state still has 1,800 or more inmates locked up on the Mainland well into the next decade. "The administration is serious about looking for ways to bring the (out-of-state) population back, but I don't see that happening in the next four or eight years," he said.
OTHER OPTIONS EXIST
As Hawai'i's policy of out-of-state incarceration becomes more entrenched, other states are moving in the opposite direction.
Connecticut and Wisconsin both recently brought home almost all of their inmates who had been housed elsewhere, and Indiana returned 600 convicts from out-of-state prisons.
Connecticut accommodated the influx of returning inmates by expanding "reintegration" programs, such as halfway houses, and increasing the use of community supervision, which allowed felons to be furloughed more quickly, said Brian Garnett, director of external affairs for the Connecticut Department of Corrections.
Wisconsin, which had 2,400 prisoners confined in other states in 2002, opened two new prisons, said Jeffrey Wydeven, contract administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Indiana opted to hire more corrections officers and reopen three vacant in-state cellblocks, a step that prison officials believe will be cheaper than leasing out-of-state beds.
Alabama, meanwhile, doubled the number of convicts on parole to allow inmates to return from a Corrections Corp. of America-run prison in Tutwiler, Miss., last year. The vacancies at Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility were filled by more than 700 Hawai'i inmates.
Wyoming plans to open a new prison in 2007 that would allow the state to bring back 550 inmates now held out of state, and lawmakers in Alaska last year authorized planning for a new prison of their own.
The push to return inmates to their home states is often driven by concerns about the money that leaves those states to pay for prison space elsewhere.
Melinda Brazzale, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Corrections, said it is cheaper to keep the inmates out of state. "However, all of those dollars that we're spending per inmate per day, plus monitoring costs, plus extra medical we might have to expend, transportation — all that is going out of state and it's not being spent in Wyoming," she said. "So we feel that fiscally it would be better if we brought them back as well."
But Brazzale's state does not face some of the daunting political problems that confront Hawai'i lawmakers when dealing with prison policy. Wyoming had communities competing with one another to host a new prison that would create jobs, she said.
In Hawai'i, where unemployment is low and quality-of-life issues have come to the fore as residents see resort and housing development crowd limited open space, proposals for new prisons have not been as welcome. Lawmakers looking for solutions to prison overcrowding also have come up against public employee unions, which oppose privately run prisons that pay lower wages to keep costs down.
Reach Kevin Dayton at firstname.lastname@example.org.