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State prisons warn of possible unrest due to food shortage

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Hawaii prisons nearly ran out of food for inmates in May and are now asking for an exemption to state procurement rules to speed up purchases.

"Tension among the inmate population because of inadequate meals is rising to levels that may result in serious inmate disturbances, if not immediately addressed," the Department of Public Safety wrote in a May filing with the state Procurement Office.

The problem arose when some of the state’s solicitations for groceries and meat failed to draw enough bidders.

"The problem is we didn’t get bidders on a number of items," said Tommy Johnson, deputy director for corrections. "Being a 24/7 operation, we face a big challenge because we have to provide three meals a day."

The situation, which has been partially resolved, raises questions about a new law aimed at increasing state purchases of local agricultural products. The law may have been a factor when correctional facilities, which house 6,000 prisoners, ran dangerously low of food last month.

Act 175, which took effect last year, requires state agencies to gather competitive bids before buying food and other fresh agricultural products. The intent of the law, which also created a 15 percent preference to locally grown products in the bidding process, was to support local growers.

The prisons’ request for a procurement exemption was withdrawn June 1 after the Procurement Office told the agency the request was too broad. Johnson said the prisons were recently able to secure vendors for certain meat items. However, an exemption is still needed so contracts for certain grocery items can be awarded.

Department of Public Safety management practices may have contributed to the problem, said Aaron Fujioka, state Procurement Office administrator.

"Frozen meat and rice are very (competitive)—you should never run out of those," he said.

The new procurement law may have affected the Department of Public Safety’s ability to procure fresh produce, Fujioka added.

The new law, which was intended to help local farmers, could actually be hurting them. When state agencies were not required to conduct competitive bidding for agricultural products, they could choose to purchase all their food from local companies without considering mainland bids.

The new law draws more mainland competition. Also, competitive procurement could hurt local farmers who are unwilling or unable to participate in state procurement processes.

Dean Okimoto, owner of Nalo Farms and former Hawaii Farm Bureau president, said Act 175 may have been premature. The bureau and the state Department of Agriculture pushed for the change hoping farmers would form co-ops to seek large state contracts.

That hasn’t happened, Okimoto said. Meanwhile, some state agencies are having difficulty securing food.

"I’ve heard about some of the problems getting enough food from local farmers," Okimoto said. "I know it’s a problem."

Local growers should be able to meet much of the fresh food needs of agencies such as state prisons, Okimoto said. However, Act 175 may need changing to make that connection stronger, he said.

The Department of Public Safety’s Johnson said the agency did all it could to award contracts in a timely manner. The warning of food shortages and prisoner unrest were precautionary and aimed at alerting the state Procurement Office to the danger of running out of food, he said.

"I don’t think it was overstated," Johnson said. "I think we were trying to convey the importance of the issues at hand."


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