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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 2, 2007

Better mental health services at prisons seen taking 3-5 years

By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer

The state expects to take three to five years to fully implement improvements with mental health services at the three main O'ahu prisons that house the state's most seriously mentally ill inmates, a Department of Public Safety official said Thursday.

But one legislator is questioning why the changes can't be made sooner.

June Tavares, healthcare division administrator for the agency, said she would like to see the system improvements at all Hawai'i prisons within the three-to-five-year time frame, but the improvements should be completely in place by then at O'ahu Community Correctional Center, Women's Community Correctional Center and Halawa Correctional Facility, the facilities that have the largest populations of seriously mentally ill prisoners.

Tavares provided the timing estimates at a legislative hearing Thursday before the Senate Public Safety Committee, headed by Sen. Will Espero, D-20th ('Ewa Beach, Waipahu). The improvements that are planned largely have been devised following a critical assessment of mental health services at OCCC in late 2005 by federal investigators.

The U.S. Department of Justice is continuing to investigate whether the civil rights of mentally ill OCCC prisoners have been violated because of substandard care.

Tavares told Espero's committee that the improvements will take that long to put in place because of such issues as funding, recruiting and training.

More funding and staffing is needed, for instance, to provide each mentally ill prisoner with 20 hours of treatment per week, according to Tavares. The department embraced that standard since the Justice Department criticized OCCC for the minimal care it was providing prisoners.

Mentally ill inmates at the Kalihi institution are now getting about 12 hours of treatment per week.

Based on deficiencies federal investigators identified following an October 2005 inspection of OCCC, the department has added staff and crafted new policies and procedures to beef up mental health services at that facility and intends to use those changes as a blueprint for improving services systemwide.

Complicating matters, however, the agency must deal with issues such as low pay, which hinders its efforts to attract qualified people to help make the changes, DPS officials said.

Espero said he would like to see the systemwide improvements put in place sooner than five years and asked Tavares to present the Legislature with an overall plan that lawmakers and the public can review to determine whether the timetable can be speeded up.

Parts of the department's plans were questioned during Thursday's hearing.

DPS officials said, for instance, that it needs five full-time psychiatrists and one half-time psychiatrist to cover its Hawai'i facilities, which would also be served by social workers, psychiatric nurses and other providers.

"I cannot fathom how this (prison) population can be taken care of with such a small number of people," said Marion Poirier, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness O'ahu.

Reach Rob Perez at rperez@honoluluadvertiser.com.