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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hālawa prison's budget may get cut by one-third

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

UPW member Jim Corn, an officer at the Waiawa Correctional Facility who was at the union's Capitol rally yesterday to oppose prison budget cuts, took an opportunity to speak with state Sen. Gary Hooser.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The state Senate's draft of the state budget would cut spending at the Hālawa Correctional Facility by more than one-third, potentially closing one of the prison's modules, which could lead to another 240 prisoners being sent to the Mainland for incarceration and about 70 correctional officers losing their jobs.

The Senate's draft would cut spending by $12.5 million and, after the cost of sending additional prisoners to the Mainland is factored in, would save the state about $6 million, since it is cheaper to house inmates on the Mainland than in Hawai'i.

State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, D-14th (Hālawa, Moanalua, Kamehameha Heights), the chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, has said the cut to Hālawa reflects the state's need to prioritize and balance the budget.

Kim said she felt it is more important to maintain health and human services programs, and to set aside money to reduce teacher furloughs, and could not ignore that it costs $137 a day to keep a prisoner in the Islands compared with $74 a day on the Mainland.

The state spends more than $50 million a year to keep more than 1,900 male inmates at Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona. Female inmates were brought home from a Kentucky prison last year after several incidents raised concerns about their safety and treatment.

The state Department of Public Safety and the United Public Workers, the union that represents correctional officers, are opposed to the cut at Hālawa and are urging lawmakers to avoid it in conference committee negotiations on the final draft of the budget.

Dozens of UPW workers rallied at the state Capitol yesterday.

Tommy Johnson, the department's deputy director for corrections, said the $8.5 million cut to the department in the Senate draft is more than one-third of Hālawa's $23 million operating budget.

The remaining cut comes out of the state Department of Budget and Finance's portion of the budget.

Johnson said the reduction would likely lead Hālawa to close one of six modules and could have an effect on other prison functions and facilities.

Johnson noted that lawmakers have long criticized the department for not housing more inmates in Hawai'i, where they can be closer to their families and more easily re-enter the community when they are released.

Johnson also said that only able-bodied prisoners without severe physical and mental problems are eligible for Mainland transfers, so if the department is forced by the budget cut to send more challenged inmates to the Mainland, the state could have to pay higher costs.

Dayton Nakanelua, the UPW's state director, said the Hālawa cut would eliminate Hawai'i jobs and enrich the private Corrections Corporation of America, which has the state contract to house inmates in Arizona.

Nakanelua also warned that there is a public safety risk in keeping more prisoners on the Mainland. He said some of the prisoners get involved with Mainland prison gangs and become more violent, then bring that behavior back to Hawai'i when they are released.

He cited the recent gang violence in Kalihi Valley Homes and Kūhiō Park Terrace as an example of the danger.

"They get integrated into that system, they get experienced in it. It's a matter of their survival," he said.

Johnson said there were gang problems associated with Hawai'i prisons long before the state began sending inmates to the Mainland in the 1990s. But he agreed there is a risk.

"It's anecdotal," he said. "But I think it's a real concern."

Johnson said he could not say exactly how many correctional officers would lose their jobs if a Hālawa module is closed, due to bumping rights and other seniority protections. The UPW has estimated that it could lead to 70 job losses.

The UPW, which also objected to the state's closing of the minimum-security Kūlani Correctional Facility on the Big Island last year, has launched an advertising and lobbying campaign to persuade lawmakers and Gov. Linda Lingle not to back the Senate's recommendation.

Lawmakers are also considering a financial and management audit of the state's contract with the Corrections Corporation of America to determine whether sending inmates to the Mainland is still advisable.