Hawaii ACLU Files Federal Complaint Over Prison Conditions

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

This week, the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, demanding an investigation into the state’s dangerously overcrowded prisons and jails.

The complaint charges that horrific conditions at the facilities constitute a violation of the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

“What you have is cells that were designed for two inmates that now are housing four or five inmates,” said Mateo Caballero, legal director for the Hawaii ACLU. “You have inmates sleeping on the floor next to leaky faucets or toilets. The conditions of jails and prisons in Hawaii have not improved in the last 30 years.”

The complaint found overcrowding at seven out of the nine state correctional facilities. These seven are at between 120 and 200 percent of the capacity they were built to handle. The complaint says this deprives inmates of “minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.” It also charges that “prison officials act with deliberate indifference to inmates’ safety.” 

The complaint additionally found that the housing of pre-trial detainees at these facilities for being unable to make bail violates their 14th Amendment due process guarantees. Up to a thousand such pre-trial detainees—convicted of no crime—are held behind bars in the Aloha State. 

The Hawaii ACLU is calling on the state to limit the number of pre-trial detainees held at the facilities and to pass reforms to decrease the number of overall prisoners, as has been done in other states, including California, Alaska and New Jersey.

Specifically named in the complaint was the Oahu Community Correctional Center, which had 1,109 inmates as of a November count. It was designed to hold just 628. The Maui Community Correctional Center houses about 425; its original design capacity was for 209 beds.

The report cites numerous complaints from prisoners over unsanitary conditions.

At the Halawa Correctional Facility, several inmates complained of poor plumbing that “causes the cell to smell of feces and urine.” A Hawaii Community Correctional Center inmate said that the shower drains back up to the point that “the water is ankle deep with gunk.” Breakouts of scabies and other infections are said to be frequent—and inmates are not quarantined, but left to infect others. An OCCC inmate told the ACLU that food carts are often “littered with roaches” when meals are served.

“This report discloses many, many problems that are inherent in our correctional system,” Kat Brady of Hawaii’s Community Alliance on Prisons told Hawaii News Now.

If the federal government does not act on the complaint, the ACLU may file a lawsuit.

That happened back in 1984, when the state ACLU sued over conditions at OCCC and the Women’s Community Correctional Center, Hawaii News Now recalled. That eventually led to a consent decree, forcing the state to reduce overcrowding at the facilities. But it took the state 14 years to comply and get the decree lifted.

An assistant to Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin told Honolulu Civil Beat that his office is reviewing the new complaint.

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