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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 3, 2005

Years of problems yield few answers

 •  Keep transferring or build here? Costs, economics not that simple
 •  Prison keeps impoverished town alive
 •  A history of trouble at Mainland prisons holding Hawai'i inmates
 •  Where the prisons are: From Hawai‘i to Kentucky
 •  Prisons for profit: inside the big business of CCA

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Staff Writer

Warden Jim Cooke of the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility talks with an inmate from Hawai'i at the prison in Tutwiler, Miss. Hawai'i holds nearly 1,830 inmates on the Mainland, including almost 860 inmates at the Tallahatchie facility. Cooke has since retired.

MIKE BROWN | Special to The Advertiser

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Gil Walker, president of GRW Corp., explains changes he made in operations at Brush Correctional Facility in Colorado.

STEVE DYKES | Special to The Advertiser

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Monitoring reports and inmate accounts from the years Hawai'i has been sending inmates to Mainland prisons reveal a long and continuing history of riots, assaults, gang activity, drug trafficking and repeated contract violations for failing to provide adequate healthcare and rehabilitative programs.

Fires and disturbances at the privately run prisons have caused substantial damage, injuries and even death. Wardens have been fired or replaced, and federal civil rights investigations launched. Inmates have been transferred from one prison to another because of poor service.

Yet with all of the commotion, and despite spending $175 million over 10 years to keep prisoners on the Mainland, the state has done little to study whether the practice is good for the inmates and good for taxpayers.

The state has never compared data on disturbances or other problems at the Mainland prisons to similar data from Hawai'i facilities to learn which facilities are more dangerous or prone to trouble. State officials also haven't looked into whether inmates on the Mainland are receiving better educational programs, job training or drug treatment than what's available in Hawai'i.

The state conducted a study in 2002 that tried to compare repeat-offender rates for inmates on the Mainland and inmates in Hawai'i, but it was inconclusive. The Department of Public Safety researchers who wrote the report recommended further study of the issue, but that was never done.

The same report said the state should do a study on programs offered at Mainland prisons, but public safety spokesman Michael Gaede said there was no funding for the research.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Hawai'i-based Community Alliance on Prisons, contends the state did not properly research the privately run prisons before sending inmates to the facilities and doesn't adequately monitor the operations.

"I think it's outrageous, and the thing that really concerns me is the state sends our people to places where they've done no due diligence," said Brady, who is probably the most outspoken critic of the Mainland placements. "They just seem to say, 'Well, it's cheap, so let's turn our inmates over to the lowest bidder.' It seems that in Hawai'i when we send our people away, it's almost 'out of sight, out of mind.' "

Frank Lopez, acting director of the state Department of Public Safety, said the state has improved its monitoring system. Until 1998 there were no prison contract monitors, but now the department has a separate branch devoted to keeping tabs on the Mainland operations.

"It's an adequate system, but I would sleep better at night if I knew that we had the inmates incarcerated over here in Hawai'i," Lopez said.


Nearly 1,830 Hawai'i inmates are being held in facilities run by the Corrections Corporation of America. CCA is holding approximately 1,750 men from Hawai'i in prisons in Oklahoma, Arizona and Mississippi, and about 80 Hawai'i women in a facility in Wheelwright, Ky.

The company is the state's sole provider of Mainland prison beds, with contracts worth about $36 million a year.

Since the first batch of 300 prisoners was shipped to two correctional centers in Texas in 1995, there have been at least 11 riots involving Hawai'i inmates at Mainland facilities. By contrast, veteran prison workers said they cannot recall a single riot at Halawa Correctional Facility, the largest state-run prison, during the past 10 years.

One national study found that privately operated prisons had 49 percent more inmate-on-staff assaults and 65 percent more inmate-on-inmate assaults than government-run facilities. CCA argues on its Web site it is a "myth" that private companies experience higher rates of assaults and escapes, saying that "historical, statistical data for related incidents actually reveal that public and private sector performances are comparable."

In a written statement, Gaede said "disturbances and violence do happen in prison occasionally." If it appears there have been more disturbances at the Mainland facilities, Gaede said that might be because there is "brighter light" shining on the prisoners there because of their unique situation.

Howard Komori, supervisor of the Department of Public Safety contract monitors who oversee conditions in the private prisons, said there may have been a greater number of disturbances at the Mainland facilities because of their more relaxed "campus atmosphere," and that Mainland corrections officers often are less experienced than prison workers in Hawai'i.

"You go out into those type of locations, the guards are going to be less seasoned than the guys at Halawa (Correctional Facility), and they're not really going to know how to respond correctly in a lot of instances," Komori said. "Our inmates actually probably run them over, because (they) know how to manipulate."


Former prisons chief Keith Kaneshiro believes years in Mainland prisons have instilled a dangerous gang culture in Hawai'i inmates that will present problems for corrections officials for years to come.

Kaneshiro, a former Honolulu prosecutor who has no interest in coddling convicts, exported hundreds of inmates to the Mainland to relieve crowding when he was public safety director from 1996 to 1998, but he is now counted among critics of the arrangement.

He said the inmates were supposed to be returned to Hawai'i as soon as a new prison opened, but a new prison was never built. When the inmates realized they would be serving long stretches out of state, they banded together to protect themselves from rival gangs from other states, he said.

State reports describe activity by the Hawai'i gangs at CCA's Diamondback Correctional Facility in Watonga, Okla., and at Florence Correctional Center in Arizona. Suspected gang members also are housed in special disciplinary units at Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss.

Contract monitors reported over the past four years that Hawai'i gangs at the Diamondback and Florence prisons were involved in drug trafficking and assaults on inmates and prison staff. The monitors also reported that, after crackdowns, the situation improved at both facilities.

But prison gang involvement spread back to Hawai'i as inmates returned to Halawa, which had been relatively free of gangs in recent years, according to Ted Sakai, who served as state prisons chief from 1998 to 2002. Lopez agreed.

"There are some things we didn't anticipate," Sakai said.


Department of Public Safety officials say the Mainland prison companies generally respond quickly when concerns are raised about their operations, but the state has often had to prod them to deliver on educational, job-training or drug-treatment programs that are required by contract.

This has been a particular problem for women inmates.

The state transferred its first group of female inmates to the Mainland in May 1997, when 64 prisoners were sent to Crystal City Correctional Center near San Antonio, operated by the Bobby Ross Group.

Concerns about sanitation and the contractor's failure to deliver mental-health and other treatment programs led the state in 1998 to move the women from Texas to the Central Oklahoma Correctional Facility, operated by the Correctional Services Corp., based in Sarasota, Fla. The prison was taken over by Dominion Correctional Services and sold in 2003 to the state of Oklahoma.

When the Oklahoma prison failed to provide required drug treatment and work opportunities, Hawai'i moved its women inmates in 2004 to GRW Corp.'s 250-bed facility in Brush, Colo. Then, early this year, Colorado authorities announced a criminal investigation into allegations that prison staff had sexual contact with eight inmates, including two women from Hawai'i.

Two corrections officers were charged with felony sexual misconduct with inmates. The warden resigned, and was later indicted as an alleged accomplice in one of the cases. All three men are awaiting trial.

When the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced in January, virtually all rehabilitative and educational programs were shut down until early June, prison officials acknowledged, violating a contract requirement that those services be provided. Gil Walker, president of GRW Corp., said the prison needed all of its resources to cope with security problems and the sexual misconduct scandal, and didn't have staff to spare for programs. The programs resumed when new staff was hired.

But there were other problems with contract compliance at Brush.

For a period of months, inmates taught required rehabilitation classes to other inmates. Colorado corrections officials who regulate private prison operations repeatedly complained about the practice, and Hawai'i contract monitors warned in February that it was a "serious concern."

Inmates and state monitors complained repeatedly that adequate dental and medical care was lacking at Brush. GRW officials reported in May the facility was visited by a doctor only once a month, and a contract monitor's report called the staffing inadequate. Monitors warned the company in February and again in May it was obliged to provide better access to dental care.

A Colorado audit released in June found the clinic at Brush was not licensed as required under Colorado law, a lapse that also violated the Hawai'i contract.

Hawai'i monitors complained last year that the prison was not conducting required drug testing of inmates, and complained of the same deficiency in a May report.

Colorado authorities also discovered that background checks were never completed on a number of Brush employees, including five convicted felons who worked there and two others who had arrest records. Failure to complete background checks was a breach of the Hawai'i contract.

Last week, the women inmates were moved from Brush to the 656-bed Otter Creek Correctional Center in Wheelwright, Ky.

Hawai'i prison officials said problems at Brush may have played a part in the decision to move the women, but said the main reason for the transfer is that Kentucky accepts out-of-state prisoners with higher security classifications, and Colorado does not.


Hawai'i monitors also have noted problems with delivery of required programs to male inmates. Their reports show that a year after the first Hawai'i inmates were placed at the CCA's Florence prison in Arizona, the facility still was not offering educational and rehabilitation programs required by its contract.

An October 2004 audit of the Lifeline substance-abuse treatment program at Diamondback Correctional Facility in Oklahoma rated it as "unsatisfactory," in part because there was no program director, and counselor caseloads were triple the recommended levels.

At the company's Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, monitors concluded in May that dental services for the inmates were insufficient, with a dentist or dental assistant on site for only eight hours a week to serve the 700-plus Hawai'i inmates who were there at the time. Tallahatchie also was not providing a cognitive skills rehabilitation program required by the Hawai'i contract.

Komori said a follow-up inspection in September found the required program has been started, and the prison had reduced its dental case backlog.

Rehabilitative programs are often required before inmates can be considered for parole, and Brady of the Community Alliance on Prisons said the contractors' failure to provide required programs likely kept some inmates in prison longer than they needed to be.

"So, here we are, we're keeping people in prison because we're not doing our level best to help them, and it's costing the taxpayers an outrageous amount of money," she said.

Brady said the state should step up monitoring of the private prisons, and perhaps keep full-time monitors at each facility. Today the state has a full-time, on-site monitor only at Diamondback.

Komori, who oversees the prison monitors, said experience shows close oversight is essential to ensure contract compliance, but he said he feels quarterly inspections are enough. He said the Department of Public Safety improved its contract monitoring last year by creating a branch within the agency that focuses solely on the Mainland facilities.

"We feel we have more control now over our contract," he said.

Lopez said he is not aware of any case where Hawai'i officials imposed sanctions or demanded repayment from private prison operators because required services were not provided. He pointed out the contracts give the private operators 30 days to fix problems once they are identified by the state.

"The reason why we identify these things and we present it to the private contractors is for them to correct it," he said.


Private prison operators say the problems at their facilities have been exaggerated or unfairly portrayed, while successes in delivering inmate services are ignored.

CCA spokesman Steve Owen said Hawai'i has had a successful public-private partnership with the company for nearly 10 years that has saved taxpayers more than $128 million since 1998.

Owen cited educational programs ranging from basic literacy and classes that help inmates obtain high school diplomas, to carpentry and computer training. Life skills, drug treatment and faith-based living programs also are offered to Hawai'i inmates, and even some inmates who oppose the practice of transferring Hawai'i prisoners to the Mainland praise the programs that are available in the out-of-state facilities.

Walker, head of GRW Corp., said inmates at the Brush Correctional Facility used the sexual misconduct scandal to stir up more controversy.

"It's kind of like a shark smelling blood with some inmates. They've got the attention of the Legislature in Hawai'i, they've got the ACLU involved, they've got attorneys involved. Some of them enjoy that notoriety," he said.

He said the allegations have unfairly stained the company's reputation. "You get such a black eye, it's like being sprayed with black paint," Walker said. "All of a sudden you're raping and pillaging and you're treating these women like the lowest life form on Earth, and that's not the case."

Walker stressed that he made management changes after the situation surfaced, hiring a new warden with many years of experience in the Colorado prison system and replacing the corporate vice president in charge of the Brush operation.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.