ACLU complaint cites jail, prison overcrowding as unconstitutional

Maui jail is worst in state with 425 inmates in a facility built for 209

The ACLU of Hawaii Foundation filed a complaint last week with the U.S. Justice Department citing overcrowding in Hawaii prisons — including Maui Community Correctional Center, whose prison population in November was more than double the designed bed capacity for the Wailuku jail.

The complaint, which was filed Friday and comes after a yearlong investigation, calls for a federal investigation and intervention “to force the State of Hawaii to address unconstitutional conditions and overcrowding in its jails and prisons.”

The ACLU claims that Hawaii prisons and jails do not meet minimum standards and violate the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibit “cruel and unusual punishment” and require equal protection of the law. As of Nov. 30, there were 3,924 inmates housed in state correctional facilities and another 1,569 Hawaii inmates in federal detention centers in Hawaii, Arizona and other states due to a lack of bed space and overcrowding, the complaint said.

Seven of the nine jails and prisons run by the state in November held more inmates than the designed bed capacity.

MCCC had the highest percentage of overcrowding of the nine facilities — 203 percent. The Wailuku jail held 425 inmates in a facility with a design capacity of 209 beds.

“Maui Community Correctional Center is the most egregiously overcrowded facility in the State of Hawaii, presently at 203 percent capacity — housing over double the number of individuals it was designed to hold since the year 2014,” the ACLU complaint said.

Toni Schwartz, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the bed capacity cited by the ACLU is the original capacity when the facility was built. The facilities have been upgraded, and MCCC currently has an “operational bed capacity,” the current approved capacity of the facility, of 301 beds.

Using that total, the Maui jail is still overcrowded, but at 141 percent.

As of Dec. 31, the total number of inmates at MCCC was 437, according to the Public Safety Department. There were 369 men and 68 women detained at the Wailuku facility with more than half, 227 inmates, held as pretrial detainees.

One MCCC inmate reported to the ACLU that four, sometimes five inmates are packed into each 12-by-4-foot cell designed for two, the complaint said. This means that inmates must sleep on the floor with cockroaches, centipedes and ants and “only inches from the toilet.” One inmate reported being forced to sleep on the floor for 55 days.

The complaint cited inadequate medical and mental health care, toilet paper shortages, unsanitary conditions and staffing shortages at MCCC.

The ACLU complaint said that the Public Safety Department has cited “major external trends” of rising pretrial and sentenced populations and increasing costs of contracted beds, as the reasons for the overcrowding at MCCC and Halawa Medium Security Facility on Oahu.

Schwartz deflected questions to the state attorney general about the ACLU complaint, the causes of the overcrowding situation and possible remedies. Joshua Wisch, special assistant to the attorney general, said that before commenting, the attorney general needs time to consult with the governor and the Department of Public Safety, as well as review the five-part 30-page letter that spans multiple years and administrations.

“Hawaii policymakers have long been warned that without a long-term plan to manage the growth of incarceration, the state could revert to conditions that led to class-action lawsuits and federal oversight,” said ACLU Legal Director Mateo Caballero.

The state entered into a consent decree in 1985 that covered overcrowding and facility and program improvements at Oahu Community Correctional Center and the women’s prison. In 1999, a federal court lifted the consent decree, ruling that the state was in substantial compliance.

“The Constitution requires that conditions of confinement in Hawaii must meet basic standards of legality and human decency,” said Caballero. “To correct these violations, the state must take immediate action.”

The ACLU is hopeful that discussions about a new Oahu Community Correctional Center “spark lawmakers and the broader community to commit to a more modern vision for our prisons and jails — one that reduces Hawaii’s over-reliance on costly and unsustainable incarceration,” he said.

“The ACLU will redouble its advocacy because there is still time to redirect public dollars toward more effective public safety policies,” he said.

Maui County state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, said Tuesday that the Legislature has been putting money into planning for another correctional facility on Maui. In fact, he said funds were put in the budget last session for planning a new facility “to push the administration into moving forward.”

He said administrations since former Gov. Ben Cayetano’s have been planning for a new Maui facility but have never settled on a plan or a site, though Puunene in the area of the Army National Guard Armory has been targeted. Nor has it been decided whether to build a jail, like MCCC, or a prison to hold felons and longer-term inmates, he said.

“So generally, this is something that is a long time coming,” said Keith-Agaran. “We have known for a while that Maui has had this problem.”

But building a new facility “is going to cost a lot of money,” he said. The idea of a public-private partnership to build the correctional facility has been floated, but there is the issue of whether the guards and staff, who are currently state workers, would be public or private sector employees.

Keith-Agaran added that the trend in the Obama administration has been to move away from privately run prisons.

With an eye toward reducing the number of inmates in state correctional facilities, the Legislature last session passed Act 217, which authorizes the Public Safety Department director to release the least dangerous inmates early specifically to address overcrowding, Keith-Agaran said. The act would allow the director to release inmates convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors or with bail amounts lower than $5,000, Schwartz said.

A misdemeanor is a low-level crime punishable by up to one year in jail. A petty misdemeanor is the least serious type of criminal offense, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, she explained. Nonviolent crimes can include things like not paying tickets, low-level theft and drug charges.

Schwartz said that no one incarcerated before the bill was enacted can be considered for release.

“Until we dissect the intricacies of the exclusionary criteria included in the bill, we would not be able to venture a guess as to how many will be screened out,” she said. “It would be a big number.”

The department’s policy would include more stringent exclusionary criteria than the bill, she said. For example, the department would not release eligible candidates who have critical medical or mental health needs or who are homeless.

The ACLU supports noncash bail reforms, which identify for release those who pose little risk of danger or flight but sit in jail because they cannot afford bail. It notes that pretrial detainees constitute half the population of OCCC, the state’s largest facility, and MCCC.

“Such reforms are not only more just and equitable, but they also reduce overcrowding and the cost of incarceration without endangering public safety,” the ACLU said.

The ACLU was critical of Hawaii, which is focusing on replacing OCCC and doubling its size with a price tag of more than a half-billion dollars, instead following the lead of other states, which have passed reforms that have reduced the number of people in jail and prison and saved money.

Alaska, New Jersey, California, Utah and Oklahoma have adopted evidence-based reforms, the ACLU said. This includes evaluating who is incarcerated, for how long and for what violation. Their efforts are reducing the number of people behind bars by modernizing policies on bail, classification of crimes, sentencing, parole and probation, the ACLU said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at