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EditorialIsland Voices

Using private prisons costs more than it seems

The recent death at Saguaro Correctional Center is further evidence of what happens when there is no transparency and accountability.

Saguaro, located in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and built by Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) in 2007, houses the majority of Hawaii’s male prison population.

There have been at least five deaths of Hawaii individuals at Saguaro in the last two years that the public knows about. Patrick Garcia, 42, died in May 2008; James Kendricks, 60, died in August 2008; an inmate named Cartel died in October 2008 waiting for medical help; Bronson Nunuha, 26, was brutally murdered in February while locked down for 22 hours a day; and Clifford Medina, 23, died on June 8.

Equally disturbing is the insensitive comment made by the state Department of Public Safety director regarding Bronson Nunuha’s murder: "What we found that time was the facility did whatever it could have done. I think they responded appropriately under the circumstances."

Your hard-earned tax dollars are paying for this.

The data show that private prison correctional officers have 35 percent fewer training hours than officers in public prisons and have a turnover rate of 52 percent compared to the 16 percent turnover at public prisons. Private prisons have 49 percent more assaults on staff and 65 percent more inmate-on-inmate assaults than public prisons.

A Time Magazine article quoted former CCA Senior Manager of Corporate Quality Assurance Ronald T. Jones: "If the wrong party found out that a facility’s operations scored low in an audit, then CCA could be subject to litigation, fines or worse."

Jones analyzed and tracked weekly audit findings from corporate quality assurance audit teams. CCA classified incidents such as escapes, unnatural deaths and disturbances as less serious to make its performance look better in reports to government agency clients. For example: "Altered facility schedule due to inmate action" means there was a riot. Reports prepared for internal use included more details about the specific incidents.

Your hard-earned tax dollars are paying for this.

In the last decade alone you shelled out more than $5.5 million to settle claims against the Department of Public Safety. Though many horrendous deaths and assaults have yet to be brought to court, you can assume that your hard-earned tax dollars will pay for many more judgments to come.

These costs are not currently aggregated into the total cost, but they should be included.

In 2011, the budget for contract prison beds is $66.2 million, a 221 percent increase since 2000. Your tax dollars will be filling CCA’s coffers as they pay their lobbyists to push for longer sentences to keep CCA beds warm and the money flowing.

Is this how you want your tax dollars spent?

In the 15 years since we have been sending our sentenced felons to the mainland, there has never been one independent audit. House Bill 415 will remedy that. It calls for an audit of the Department of Public Safety’s contracts for prison beds, the closure of Kulani Correctional Facility, and asks for a recommendation on whether the continued housing of Hawaii inmates in non-state facilities is advisable. HB 415 is on the governor’s desk awaiting her decision.

The economic crisis has forced us to be mindful of how we allocate our resources. The only way we can do that is to shine the light on the dark corners of public policy that have been hidden far too long.

Transparency and accountability must be this decade’s mantra.

Kat Brady is a justice advocate and coordinator of Community Alliance on Prisons, working to promote smart justice policies.


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