Lawmakers Set Up The State Prison Commission. Now They Don’t Want To Pay For It

The Correctional System Oversight Commission has provided the public with an unprecedented window into the operations of Hawaii’s troubled prisons and jails.

State lawmakers this year failed to fund the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission, a panel of experts that for months has been publicly flagging severe problems in Hawaii’s prisons and jails. But the commission’s budget for this year was later partially restored by Gov. Josh Green.

That near-death fiscal experience is just the latest in a long series of budget problems that have dogged the commission since it was created more than four years ago.

Mark Patterson, chairman of the oversight commission, explained at a public meeting Thursday that the commission was initially told by the state Attorney General’s Oice that an error held up funding for this year.

However, staff at the Legislature later clarified that negotiators with the House and Senate had disagreed over whether to provide about $400,000 or about $500,000 in funding for the commission for this year, and in the end lawmakers provided nothing.

Green then stepped in to provide $413,388 to partially fund the commission for this year, Patterson said, but commission members must now make a case to lawmakers that the organization should be funded in future years.

“Is it of concern to us? Yes, it is of concern to us,” Patterson told the commission.

The Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission is, from left, Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility Administrator Mark Patterson, retired Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra, former Department of Public Safety Deputy Director of Administration Martha Torney, former Public Safety Director Ted Sakai and retired Circuit Court Judge Michael Town. (Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat/2020)

The Legislature created the commission in 2019 to provide oversight to the state’s aging, long-neglected network of prisons and jails. It is also supposed to guide the state system toward a more rehabilitative model of corrections.

Creating the commission was a key recommendation of a high-powered task force that was also formed by the Legislature, and included judges, prosecutors, parole officials and criminal justice reformers.

But after the oversight commission was established in law and its members were appointed, funding to hire the staff it needed to actually inspect state facilities stalled for years.

Gov. David Ige’s administration never released $488,000 in funding that would have allowed the commission to hire and pay staff in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, and for three years the commission operated without staff.

It was finally cleared in the fall of 2021 to hire oversight coordinator Christin Johnson last year, and the result has been a series of dramatic, often scathing reports by commission staff during the last 12 months on the conditions and problems in state correctional facilities.

Those reports disclosed a months-long failure of the electronic system that maintains inmate medical records, and appalling overcrowding and other poor conditions at the Hilo jail.

Johnson also disclosed the lack of working video cameras at the Women’s Community Correctional Center, which has a long history of sexual assaults of inmates by staff, security lapses at the state’s largest jail on Oahu and the plight of impoverished petty offenders who were stuck in jail because they could not post bail amounts as low as $15.

Commission members and staff have also arranged for a series of tours by judges, prosecutors and lawmakers to underscore the the problems the system faces. One such tour of the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo prompted a Big Island judge to describe conditions there as “atrocious.”

Hawaii Community Correctional Center located in Hilo. This area is used to quarantine inmates for COVID-19 before entering into the prison population.
A section of the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo that was used for quarantine during the pandemic. HCCC has been a focus of concern for the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Johnson last week presented a full report on the commission’s activities during the year since she was hired.

The commission is made up of retired Circuit Court Judges Ronald Ibarra and Michael Town, retired Director of the Department of Public Safety Ted Sakai, retired Public Safety Deputy Director of Administration Martha Torney and Patterson, who is administrator of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.

Johnson said the funding provided by Green does not include money for out-of-state travel. The commission had requested travel money to finance trips to inspect the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, where Hawaii now holds about 870 inmates.

The smaller-than-requested budget also does not include funding for a study the commission had planned to establish appropriate population limits in Hawaii facilities, Johnson said. The law that created the commission requires that it set those population caps.

Patterson said the Attorney General’s Office has committed to seek additional funding for the commission to keep it functioning in future years.

“We know there is value to the commission,” Patterson said. “It’s really how do the commissioners in the next legislative session really get out there and communicate the purpose and the reason why Hawaii needs an oversight commission.”

“That’s how I’m looking at it right now. I don’t want to get into an political intrigue, but merely we failed to communicate as commissioners the need for the commission in Hawaii and its criminal justice issues and to move forward with reform,” he said.

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