The demand for prison work crews as cheap labor for nonprofit groups, schools, churches and state and city agencies has skyrocketed over the past two years in an economy that forced deep cuts, layoffs and a mounting backlog of repair and maintenance projects.
Prison officials can’t keep up with the requests pouring in for inmates to clean, do heavy lifting and even scour Leeward Coast beaches for medical waste in the runoff from Waimanalo Gulch Landfill last month.
Since the economy fell apart in 2008, "there has been a vast increase in requests for the past two years," said Francis X. Sequeira, warden at Oahu Community Correctional Center, who oversees 12 prisoner "work lines." "We can only address a finite amount of requests," Sequeira said in an e-mail.
Prison officials do not track the number of requests from all islands for prison labor, but there has been a clear increase, said Michael Hoffman, institutions division administrator for the state Department of Public Safety.
The largest group comes from Oahu, where about 300 prisoners from OCCC, the Women’s Community Correctional Center, Waiawa Correctional Facility and — in rare cases — Halawa Correctional Facility meet the qualifications to work outside.
Crews guarded by adult corrections officers fan out across Oahu every day, said Hoffman, who supervised work-line crews for the state Department of Public Safety in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Department of Public Safety pays inmates 25 cents an hour, and the agencies and organizations that request help provide lunch for each inmate.
OCCC inmate John Carvalho, 52, worked up a sweat last week weed-whacking and straightening out headstones at Kaahumanu Cemetery in Kapalama with other prisoners under the watch of corrections officer Richard "Bolo" Kahawai, who has been overseeing work lines for 34 years.
"I get to work outside and be in the community," Carvalho said. "It’s way better than sitting in a cell 24/7, contemplating what you did to get there. Inside, you’re just not going anywhere."
While most organizations only need to provide inmates and accompanying corrections officers with a bento lunch, members of Kaahumanu Church are so grateful for the twice-a-month labor that they always provide a huge spread, Kahawai said.
Carvalho especially relishes any compliment that church members offer to the prisoners.
"You get a chicken-skin, good feeling that what you did is appreciated and worth it," Carvalho said.
Kahawai’s work line, along with others that help churches and other organizations, are considered a "freebie that DPS gives back to the community," said Deanna Espinas, program administrator for Hawaii Correctional Industries.
Hawaii Correctional Industries, however, is an arm of the Department of Public Safety that describes itself as a "self-supporting, for-profit, quasi-state agency" created in 1990 to provide "meaningful" work for inmates.
It has million-dollar contracts to provide prisoner labor — also at 25 cents per hour — while being able to procure goods for other agencies at much lower cost.
Like the increased demand for prisoner work lines, requests for Hawaii Correctional Industries contracts "are coming out of the walls," Espinas said. "I’m proud of it and it’s exciting, but I don’t know if I can realistically accept such requests at this time."
The state Department of Transportation pays Hawaii Correctional Industries $80,000 per month to hire five work lines — each consisting of six to eight prisoners — to work weekdays.
The prisoners primarily clean freeways, highways and state roads in town, the Windward side, Hauula, Pearl City and Wahiawa and occasionally clear debris from homeless encampments, said transportation spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.
The prisoners and adult corrections officers arrive with their own vans, weed whackers and other equipment, freeing up Transportation Department workers to conduct maintenance and emergency repairs.
"It’s a lot cheaper, and we’re very happy with the program," Meisenzahl said. "It’s not as expensive as hiring someone. You’re not paying medical or all those extra costs. It’s great for the prisoners, it’s great for us. It’s a great deal."
While inmates have been caught over the years after escaping from work-line crews, Meisenzahl said the majority "are highly motivated" to do well.
The state Department of Education had concerns about prisoners working at elementary and middle-school campuses when it signed a $1.07 million contract in July 2009 with Hawaii Correctional Industries to replace playgrounds.
"We didn’t want pedophiles or child molesters on campus, and they told me they don’t let those prisoners out to work," said Monica Kaui Baron, Department of Education playground coordinator. "They explained that these guys and women are already in the community doing work, and they were considered low-risk. These inmates are the lowest level of security and on their way out, to be released soon."
The DOE had been overcharged for inferior-quality playground equipment when Kaui Baron discovered that Hawaii Correctional Industries had an exemption to procure bids for other state agencies at lower costs.
"They negotiate a lot better prices for us, which means we can double the size of the playgrounds," Kaui Baron said. "We were paying a lot of money for playgrounds, and the quality wasn’t that good, in essence putting our kids at risk."
The $1 million spent by the department covered all equipment and labor for 12 new playgrounds on Oahu and the Big Island.
The prisoners built elementary school playgrounds while classes were in session, Kaui Baron said, but worked at middle schools during intersessions.
A subsequent $2.3 million contract signed last July with Hawaii Correctional Industries will provide 38 new playgrounds at 28 more elementary and middle schools. And a third, $2.6 million contract will mean 41 new playgrounds for 33 schools beginning this month.
Inmates who go out on work crews could have been imprisoned for violent crimes, said Hoffman of the Department of Public Safety. But they subsequently showed good behavior and completed programs that deemed them "cleared to participate in community custody programs," he said.
Once out in the public, prisoners are guarded at a ratio of 10 inmates per each adult corrections officer, Hoffman said. "The majority would be entering into the last stages of sentences and are getting very close to what we refer to as their ‘tentative parole date.’"
City parks officials normally use prisoners to clean parks five days a week, city spokeswoman Louise Kim McCoy said.
"They cut grass, they weed-whack and perform other manual labor at various city parks, Monday through Friday," McCoy said. "The only expense is to provide a box lunch, a bento, for each inmate."
On Wednesday the state Senate Committees on Hawaiian Affairs and Public Safety, Government Operations and Military Affairs will consider a bill to create a program to have nonviolent prisoners restore historical sites selected by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said Sen. Will Espero, Public Safety Committee chairman.
For the prisoners, Espero said, working on Hawaiian sites could get some inmates in touch with their cultural roots. "If nothing else," Espero said, "it gives them that invigorating feel of just being outdoors."