Convicts are well-fed, but all get the same portions, the state says in its defense
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 22, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 1:32 p.m. HST, May 22, 2011
Jonathan Namauu and Paul Keck say they each have lost at least 40 pounds over the past year.
George Rowan told his wife he's lost 100 pounds, nearly a third of his weight, since October.
While the three Oahu men have not been trying to lose weight, they share the same diet: prison food.
All three are inmates at Halawa Community Correctional Facility. They say the meal portions have become so meager that many inmates are suffering unwanted weight loss, in some cases shedding substantial amounts.
An increasing number of inmates and their family members in recent months have complained to outside groups about the adequacy of Hawaii prison meals.
The state Ombudsman's Office, the Public Defender's Office, the Community Alliance on Prisons and other organizations say they have received or are hearing about more food-related complaints than usual. The issue of unwanted weight loss — a red flag to watchdog groups — is being mentioned more frequently, according to the community alliance group and the Ombudsman's Office.
"Even dogs and cats at the Humane Society eat better than us," said Namauu, serving time for negligent homicide. Namauu, who is 5 feet 10 inches, said in a phone interview that his weight has dropped to 230 pounds since he was transferred to Halawa from an Arizona prison in June. Other inmates, especially those who returned from Arizona, tell similar stories, blaming inadequate, unhealthy food.
FEEDING THE INMATESThe Department of Public Safety, which runs Hawaii’s prisons, say these are typical meals served to inmates. Some prisoners, however, say they frequently get much less.
Source: Department of Public Safety
But the Department of Public Safety, which runs Hawaii prisons and oversees the more than 4,500 inmates incarcerated here, say the prisoners are getting nutritionally balanced meals and sufficient calories.
The meals are designed to provide 2,600 to 2,900 calories daily, according to Larry Hales, acting administrator for the department's corrections program services.
"The meals are nutritionally balanced as approved by a registered dietitian," Hales said in written responses to the newspaper. "All statewide correctional facilities follow the same five-week standardized menu cycle."
Attorney David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in Washington, D.C., said if prisoners are experiencing weight loss because of insufficient food "that's a serious red flag. It's a real danger sign."
The ACLU successfully sued an Arizona sheriff several years ago for unconstitutional conditions at a jail there. Among the conditions cited by the court was inadequate food.
Vanessa Chong, executive director of the ACLU in Hawaii, said her office started receiving food-related weight-loss complaints this year and is looking into the situation. She encourages more inmates to contact her office.
Given the state's failure to adopt practical, cost-effective prison policies, she said, more problems are surfacing and she wouldn't be surprised if the food situation is yet another.
"This could be part of the ongoing cracking of the system," Chong said.
Hales said in a phone interview that meal portions for the general prison population have not been reduced because of budget cuts.
Hales did note that Halawa recently corrected a practice in which some inmates were getting double portions when they shouldn't have been. He also said that male and female inmates, regardless of their size, get the same portions unless a doctor orders something different for medical reasons.
If an inmate loses weight, he or she can request to see a doctor, and if the doctor orders an enhanced diet for medical reasons, the meals will be adjusted, Hales said. But the department has few cases of medical diets for increased food, he said.
If an overweight inmate claims weight loss and is seen by a doctor, the inmate will not be placed on a medical diet to increase weight, he added.
Hawaii inmates' dislike of prison food is nothing new. Groups such as Kat Brady's Community Alliance on Prisons have heard such grumblings for years.
What's different this time, though, is the repeated complaints from family members who visit their loved ones and reported being shocked to see how much weight the inmates have lost, according to Brady, coordinator for the alliance.
"When families started calling me and saying, ‘Oh, my God, it looks like they've been in Auschwitz,' that tells me something is wrong," said Brady, referring to one of the concentration camps operated by the Nazis in World War II.
Criminal defense attorney Earle Partington, who represents inmate Paul Kleck, likewise said he was stunned when he recently visited his client at Halawa for the first time in about a year.
"His face was so gaunt, he's lost so much weight, it's incredible," Partington said.
Keck, 63, who is 6 feet tall, told the Star-Advertiser he weighs 205 pounds, down from about 250 a year ago.
"Everybody has lost weight," said Keck, who is serving time for sexual assault.
Social worker Gemmi Rowan said her 6-foot, 5-inch husband, George, has lost so much weight since returning from Arizona in late October that flaps of skin hang from his torso. He now weighs about 220 pounds.
"He looks terrible to me," Rowan said, adding that her husband was able to maintain his weight in Arizona.
When Rowan's daughter spent more than two months this year at Oahu Community Correctional Facility, she also lost weight, shedding about 20 pounds, Rowan said. Her 5-foot, 6-inch daughter weighed 110 when released.
"She looked like a twig," Rowan said.
Asked why organizations are receiving more food-related complaints, Hales wrote, "The complaints coming from the outside could be due to the public learning of the current economic situation that the state is facing and hearing from inmates who feel they are not fed adequate, nutritious meals."
But Hales said DPS consistently has spent more than $10 million annually over the past four years to feed Hawaii's inmate population.
Given conflicting information provided by prisoners and the department, it's tough for an outsider to get an accurate gauge of what's happening on the inside. The two sides don't seem to agree on anything.
Prisoners, for instance, say they've complained to prison staff about the meal situation. DPS says no food service unit at any facility statewide has received complaints.
Prisoners say they sometimes get only a slice of cake or a biscuit for breakfast and they hadn't had fresh fruit in months — until the Star-Advertiser started making inquiries. DPS says that isn't accurate.
Most of the inmates and family members who spoke to the Star-Advertiser on the record did so reluctantly because they feared retaliation. But they said the situation has become so intolerable that they decided to speak out anyway, hoping the exposure will lead to changes.
Most of the complaints reported to the Star-Advertiser involved Halawa, but a few mentioned Oahu Community Correctional Center, the women's prison in Kailua and the Maui prison.
"It's definitely something more recent," Public Defender Jack Tonaki said of the rise in complaints his office has heard from prisoners.
State Ombudsman Robin Matsunaga estimated that his office has received fewer than 50 food-related complaints from prisoners in recent months. After following up with DPS, Matsunaga's office did not find an indication of a problem. But he acknowledged that his office has neither the expertise nor the resources to conduct a food audit to independently verify such information as calorie or nutrition levels.
The ACLU's Fathi said courts have ruled that inmates are entitled to meals that are nutritionally balanced and adequate to sustain health, and instances of significant unwanted weight loss raise questions on whether that standard is being met.
"People should not be losing 40 or 100 pounds because they're not being fed enough," he said.
Fathi said he is seeing more cases of states and counties across the country paring prison diets in a short-sighted attempt to cut costs. Those efforts, he said, will lead to greater costs in the long run.
"Hungry prisoners are unhappy prisoners," Fathi said. "And unhappy prisoners are harder to manage."