POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 20, 2010
Frustrated by community opposition to construction of new prison facilities in Hawaii, the state began exporting some of its inmates to mainland facilities 15 years ago because of overcrowded conditions. Gov. Neil Abercrombie now wants to bring them home — a laudable goal but, as his two predecessors found, difficult to achieve.
Abercrombie's determination to return prisoners to prisons on the islands is encouraging even if long-range. A more immediate approach could be installation of temporary facilities on present prison grounds, as recommended to the state Public Safety Department two years ago by a New Jersey consulting firm.
The new governor was reacting last week to a new lawsuit brought against the state by 18 inmates who are among nearly 2,000 Hawaii prisoners serving their time in privately owned prisons in Arizona. Hawaii inmates complain about being abused and their families being threatened after a guard was injured while trying to break up a fight.
A onetime probation officer, Abercrombie says his administration will approach the Judiciary and the Legislature "to forge a comprehensive and integrated program to deal with the question of incarceration." A central goal is to end the policy of sending inmates to the mainland. He is not the first to display dissatisfaction with the present system:
» Former Gov. Ben Cayetano tried without success to drum up support for prisons to be built in Leeward Oahu or on the Big Island for a growing inmate population. He decided instead to send the influx to privately run facilities in Texas, Minnesota and Oklahoma in 1995. He tried futilely through the rest of his administration to gain approval for prison plans.
» Linda Lingle denounced the policy of sending inmates away while she was running for governor. Four years into her governorship, Lingle gave up trying to build any more prisons, calling it "impractical," and decided to consolidate nearly 2,000 inmates on the mainland to Arizona prisons.
Abercrombie says sending prisoners to the mainland "costs money. It costs communities. It destroys families. It is dysfunctional all the way around — socially, economically, politically and morally." More than one-fourth of the Public Safety Department's operating budget goes to incarcerating prisoners on the mainland.
At this point in the economy, money is central to the issue. In the short term, putting inmates behind mainland bars is less expensive than island imprisonment. The Pew Charitable Trust found three years ago that housing inmates in various mainland correctional centers costs $42 to $52 a day, compared to $102 daily in Hawaii. Last year, the cost of housing a woman inmate in Hawaii was said to be $86 a day, compared with $58 at the private prison in Kentucky where they then were held.
However, those are not the only costs. Ninety percent of former mainland-held Hawaii prisoners were found in 2005 to have committed subsequent crimes, compared with a recidivism rate of 47 percent to 57 percent among those imprisoned in Hawaii. Those long-term societal costs are important.
Abercrombie acknowledges that bringing the prisoners back to Hawaii may take time. Just how he plans to make that happen is eagerly awaited. However, he is right in refusing to accept a flawed correctional system merely because changes proposed in the past have not seen fruition.