Editor’s note: This week, we begin a two-part story on a proposed audit of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety’s contracts with outside correctional corporations.
When Hawaii inmate Bronson Nunuha was stabbed to death in his cell at Corrections Corporation of America’s Saguaro Correctional Facility in Eloy, Arizona, on February 18, he had only about eight months left to serve on his full sentence for three counts of burglary. Normally, at that stage of a prisoner’s sentence, he or she would expect to be out on parole or serving in a minimum security facility and enrolled in programs to help him or her transition to life in the outside world. But Nunuha was in a high-security program that placed him under lockdown for all but two hours of each day.
Nunuha was among about 1900 Hawaii inmates kept at CCA facilities–most at Saguaro, but about 50 at nearby Red Rock Correctional Center and one woman still at CCA’s Otter Creek facility in Kentucky (most Hawaii women inmates were transferred back to the islands after allegations surfaced of rape and other misconduct at Otter Creek). Nunuha’s death, along with the sudden closure of the Big Island’s Kulani Correctional Center last year, have helped to fuel calls for an independent audit of the state’s Public Safety Department and its dealings with CCA. A bill requiring such an audit passed the Hawaii Legislature in its 2010 session and HB415 is now awaiting Gov. Linda Lignle’s signature.. It received support from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Community Alliance on Prisons, the Drug Policy Forum, the United Public Workers, the Hawaii Government Employee’s Association, and various attorneys and social workers. Among the very few to testify against: Public Safety Director Clayton Frank.
De-paroling for profit?
“Private prisons are for-profit corporations, accountable as most of those businesses are to their shareholders and investors; with profits as their primary motive. They have a self-serving interest in keeping their census up to capacity, and their costs low, much like hotels and other lodging businesses,” testified Jean Ohta of the Drug Policy Forum. “It is because of this self-interest on the part of private prisons that an audit should be conducted.”
“We have received numerous reports suggesting that CCA is not meeting its most basic of constitutional obligations in housing inmates. We have also received several reports suggesting that CCA may be keeping inmates longer than necessary; because Hawaii pays CCA per inmate per day of incarceration, the longer inmates are held, the more money CCA receives,” testified ACLU attorney Daniel Gluck.
Gluck wrote that his organization had received “numerous reports” of inmates who’d been granted parole being “held for four months or more by CCA (based on vague and unsubstantiated reasons for ignoring the Paroling Authority’s orders)” and of Saguaro inmates, including those with no previous records of infractions, being “written up for spurious rule infractions shortly before their parole eligibility dates,” disqualifying them for parole.
“One month of additional incarceration at CCA can easily cost the State and the taxpayers nearly $2,000–money that is sorely needed for other programs like drug rehabilitation, mental health care, and education–and the Legislature need not (and should not) allow these reports to be ignored,” he added.
Asked about infractions at CCA, Franks told Honolulu Weekly, “I don’t believe that they receive anymore disciplinary writeups than what we have here.”
At the legislature, Frank maintained that an independent audit was unnecessary. “These contracts and agreements referenced in this measure are already audited on a regular basis by an independent auditor,” he testified.
But when the Weekly checked the department’s records for an audit of the Saguaro facility, all that turned up was a checklist.
Shari Kimoto, who filled out that checklist, is the Public Safety Department’s Mainland Branch Manager, the state employee in charge of managing the department’s relations with CCA. She is also the wife of Republican Party Chair Jonah Kaauwai, who is himself a former Public Safety official. CCA has been a heavy contributor to Republican Party candidates and causes, including Republican Governor Linda Lingle, who received the maximum legal donation of $6,000 for each of her gubernatorial campaigns.
Kimoto checked the “compliant” box for every one of the audit checklist’s 115 categories, covering everything from the temperatures of the freezers to the presence of “inmate property forms.” But the audit did not appear to monitor whether inmates were being kept overtime.
HW asked Frank about the “independent audits” he referred to in his testimony. He said he would check. Later in the interview, he said that CCA facilities were audited and accredited by the American Correctional Association.
Frank told the legislature that prisoners in CCA facilities cost the state about half as much to maintain as those at the state’s own correctional facilities. He told HW that those figures were based on the state’s contracts and included transportation costs to the mainland. But neither his figures, nor the ACA audits, nor Kimoto’s, include an examination of such factors as the length of time inmates served before parole in different facilities, the costs of lawsuits by inmates or their families, or the recidivism rates of inmates–factors that the department’s critics want examined.
Services and sentences
Frank said prisoners were selected to go to the mainland based on a series of criteria: They must have sentences of “a minimum of 24 months,” they must have “no major medical or health care problems, and “They don’t have any pending criminal cases here.”
Apparently, though, that system doesn’t always work.
“I’ve had clients who’ve been transferred to AZ who still have cases pending,” attorney Daphne Barbee said. “I’ve had to have them brought back.” One client, she said, didn’t get back in time for his own hearing; he only got his day in court because the judge granted an extension.
Bronson Nunuha was in the 22-hour lockdown, Frank said, because of “disciplinary conduct.” How fast an inmate such as Nunuha goes through the system, he maintained, “depends on the inmate what the level of participation he wants.” Sometimes, he said, “Rather than participate in the program they just choose to max out on their sentence.”
But the department’s critics say that often services just aren’t available, that the programs at CCA were sparse, and that the closure of Kulani Prison had aggravated the problem.