Hawaii pulling its women inmates out of troubled Kentucky prison
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
Women inmates from Hawai'i will be removed from a Kentucky prison for safety reasons after allegations that some were sexually abused by prison guards, the state Department of Public Safety announced yesterday.
Clayton Frank, the department's director, said 40 women inmates were transferred back to the Islands on Monday and most of the 128 women remaining at Otter Creek Correctional Center in Wheelwright will return within a month. Several women serving lengthy sentences will be moved to other Mainland prisons, according to the department.
Frank said many inmates wanted to stay at Otter Creek because they believe they are benefiting from its prison services.
"The decision to bring them back was not an easy one, because not only cost, but also what these inmates would also be losing," Frank told a joint briefing of the state Senate Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee and the House Public Safety Committee. "They will be coming back but they are not going to get everything what was provided for them at Otter Creek."
State lawmakers who have been calling for the department to return the women inmates praised Frank's decision.
"It's good news. The Legislature has been pushing for this for a few years now," said state Sen. Will Espero, D-20th ('Ewa Beach, Waipahu), chairman of the Senate Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee.
"The women will be in our prisons, in our jurisdiction, where we'll have much better control over the whole situation. Of course, in terms of rehabilitation and re-entry, it's better when the families are close together where they can assist each other."
Overcrowding at state prisons has led the state to spend $50 million a year to house about 2,000 Hawai'i inmates at Mainland prisons operated by the private Corrections Corporation of America. The state spends $3.6 million a year to house the women inmates at Otter Creek.
Frank said it costs $58 a day to keep a woman inmate at Otter Creek, compared with $86 a day in Hawai'i.
Authorities have looked into nearly two dozen claims of sexual abuse at Otter Creek over the past few years, including seven involving Hawai'i inmates.
One Hawai'i inmate's sexual abuse claim was substantiated in 2007 and the prison guard was fired and convicted of a misdemeanor. Department investigators who visited the prison in July said the claims of three other Hawai'i inmates are under investigation by Kentucky authorities; one has been dismissed as unfounded; and two inmates denied they had been abused.
The Louisville Courier-Journal reported this month that at least five prison workers have been charged with having sex with inmates at Otter Creek over the past three years.
Frank said bringing the female inmates back to Hawai'i will put the state system at near capacity. The women will be housed at the Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua and the Federal Detention Center near Honolulu International Airport. Women from the Neighbor Islands who are close to completing their sentences may be sent to facilities near their homes.
Louise Grant, vice president of marketing and communications for the Corrections Corporation of America in Nashville, Tenn., said she had not yet heard of the state's decision to remove the women from Otter Creek.
"We've been proud of the relationship we've had with Hawai'i for more than a decade and have been proud of our services for the women in our care," she said.
Frank said the department will likely continue to send female inmates to the Mainland but will look for prisons on the West Coast.
Previous problems involving female inmates, including questions about prison conditions, adequate treatment services and sexual abuse, have led the state to move women from prisons in Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado.
Lawmakers urged Frank to thoroughly examine prison conditions and state laws covering sexual assault before sending more female inmates to the Mainland. Under questioning from state Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, D-12th (Waikiki, Ala Moana, Downtown), Frank acknowledged the department was unaware that sexual assault against an inmate was a misdemeanor in Kentucky.
"I don't think there's any doubt that we like our inmates to pay their debt to society, but it's our responsibility to provide them with a safe environment to do that," Galuteria said.
Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons, said she hopes the women will get adequate services in Hawai'i prisons. She also said the women who pose no threat to public safety should be released.
"Put them on home placement, home detention, whatever they need to do. But keep them out of the prisons, which is the most expensive sanction," she said.
Marjorie Witehira, whose daughter, Pania Akopian, reported being sexually assaulted by a guard at Otter Creek in June, said her daughter was among the inmates who signed a petition asking to stay in Kentucky. She said some inmates believe they have greater privileges at Otter Creek than they would in Hawai'i prisons.
Witehira said family members visited Akopian at Christmas and would have preferred that she served her sentence closer to home. "That's how much we love her and want her to be back with us," she said.