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Understanding prison reform

While the governor's call to bring home more Hawaii convicts from the mainland is a positive step, it does little to fix the root problems with Hawaii's prison system.

Will Caron

Editor’s Note: Explainers provide context for a large, complex story. For ongoing reporting on prison reform efforts and coverage of relevant legislation, follow the Prison Reform collection.


Like other prison systems across the country, the Community Correction Center system in Hawai‘i is overcrowded and outdated. Many of the inmates in the system should be in drug abuse and mental health care programs rather than in a cell.

Unlike other states though, the overcrowded nature of Hawai‘i’s prisons is so severe that the state sends a portion of its inmates to prisons in other states instead. This sends Hawai‘i tax dollars out of state and takes many inmates away from appropriate, family and community-based alternative programs here in the islands and often decreases the chances of successful rehabilitation into the community after sentence is served.

On top of this, time served for non-violent property and drug-related crimes has increased over the past ten years, adding to mounting costs.

Governor Abercrombie has made bringing inmates home a priority for his administration in the past, and will do so again during this 2014 Legislative session.

In 2010, 2,006 prisoners (or roughly one third of Hawai‘i’s prisoners) were in mainland facilities, according an audit of the State Department of Public Safety (DPS)‘s mainland contracts. As of 2014, that number is down to 1,393 prisoners. (http://csgjusticecenter.org/jr/hi/)

“It is clear that we need additional facilities,” the governor said in his State of the State address on Tuesday, January 21. “Most of our current decades-old structures are deteriorated, over-capacity, and poorly designed.”

This July, the Kulani Correctional Facility on the Big Island will reopen, allowing more prisoners to return to the islands.

“The Department of Public Safety has issued a request for information to procure a comprehensive plan to return prisoners, build facilities with sufficient capacity to keep those prisoners who present a danger to our community properly incarcerated, and provide programmatic options while keeping our communities safe,” the governor said.

Who’s Involved in this Issue

Ted Sakai, Director Department of Public Safety
Max Otani, Deputy Director of Corrections
State Department of Public Safety
The House Committee on Public Safety (PBS)
The Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs (PSM)
The Community Alliance on Prisons
Ohana Hoopakele

Legislation for 2014

PBS does not have any bills up currently that would reduce crowding or help non-violent drug abusers or mentally ill inmates enter rehabilitation programs and get them out of the correction system.

PSM has a bill (Part of the Prosecutor’s Package) up that would appropriate funds for a new correctional facility. While failing to address root problems with the prison system , this bill could be a good thing—provided it will replace cells in an older facility, not add them. Another bill could be much more positive. SB2315 would appropriate funds to provide substance abuse treatment services to Halawa Correctional Facility inmates.

The bottom line is that, like many other issues facing our society, if we invested in preventative measures, better education and appropriate care programs for at-risk youth and adults, we wouldn’t need to spend as much on the prison system. These measures appear to be more reactionary than preventative.

Our Take

While it’s good that we’re bringing inmates home to Hawai‘i (a positive short-term goal), we wish the governor had placed more emphasis on reforming the prison system itself to stop incarceration for non-violent, drug abuse and mental health-related crimes. Those people need help and they won’t get it behind bars. True reform would tackle overcrowding without having to reopen prisons such as Kulani and would reduce the cost of maintaining the prison system.