Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Hawaii exports its prisoners to an uncertain future on the Mainland - where one has just died

An Associated Press story today carried in both the Advertiser and Star Bulletin reported that a Hawaii prisoner held at Otter Creek prison in Kentucky, Sarah Ah Mau, died of what prison authorities described as a heart attack. The reports stated that the prisoner's sister claimed that she died because needed medical care was not given to her. Hawaii state prison officials are to investigate.

KHON did much better with this story. They quoted the coroner in Kentucky:
"The prison told the coroner it was a heart attack. The coroner says no way.

"I have a short, heavy-set Hawaiian lady who definitely did not die of a heart attack," says the coroner.

The coroner says the prison may be ignoring a contagious problem by trying to portray Ah Mau's death as a heart attack.
None of this was in the print story. KHON is to be commended for following up by contacting officials in Kentucky.

Kudos also to KITV. They reported:
In addition to questions about the cause of death and possible denied medication, there is also a concern about whether Ah Mau was removed from life support without her family's consent and whether an autopsy was done.
KITV also added:
Hawaii inmates on the mainland are supposed to have direct access to Hawaii officials in order to complain about their conditions. That's why the public safety director is concerned that the information he's getting about Ah Mau's death is coming from third party, unofficial sources, such as her family friends and the news media.
To find out why this is happening, tune back to KHON:
Last night, the security officials at the Kentucky prison told all Hawaii inmates not to talk with anyone outside of the prison about Sarah's death.
Now for the rest of the story.

Otter Creek is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, a company with a problematic history. In Grassroots CCA Prison Report 2003:
During the past decade, a large portion of the newspaper and magazine articles written about CCA have focused on issues of abuse, violence, mismanagement, litigation or financial distress. Conditions in CCA's U.S. prisons are not unique: prisoners and staff also suffered from operational problems at CCA's now divested foreign joint venture operations.
The report mentions a well-documented nine-hour incident at Otter Creek in July 2001 during which hundreds of prisoners staged a nine-hour riot.

The question that comes to mind is why Hawaii keeps sending its inmates to Mainland prisons. Separating inmates from their families and their attorneys clearly doesn't contribute to their rehabilitation, and it's clear also that Hawaii corrections officials can't control conditions in out of state private prisons.

Nor is the answer in building more prisons in Hawaii. A better solution, say drug policy experts, is to undo the harm done by the failed war on drugs which only serves to fill up our prison system while denying hope of rehabilitation and future employment.

(The most discouraging news may lie in a comment in the KITV report:

[Inmate rights attorney Eric] Seitz said overall, mainland prisons hired to house Hawaii inmates have done a better job of providing health care than local prisons.)

Our newspapers can dig deeper than they have on this issue. It's not as though they are not aware of the problems faced by Hawaii inmates in private Mainland prisons--Advertiser staff writer Kevin Dayton wrote a series of articles in the October 3, 2005 paper. In one of the articles, he observed:
There also have been problems at CCA prisons holding Hawai'i inmates, including violence, drug smuggling and contract violations. Still, state prison officials say CCA has generally done a good job and has been quick to make changes when deficiencies are pointed out.
This seems to resemble the tactic of putting up a traffic light only after people have been killed crossing the street. In other words, there's nothing protecting Hawaii inmates being held on the mainland from abuse.

The Advertiser article reveals little about how CCA is selected:
Founded in 1983, the Nashville, Tenn.-based company has grown into a behemoth that employs 15,000 workers to oversee 62,000 inmates, including about 1,830 inmates from Hawai'i. CCA reported revenues of $1.15 billion last year, and last week became Hawai'i's sole provider of Mainland prison space.

The company is expected to collect $36 million from Island taxpayers in mostly nonbid contracts this year.

All but one of the prison contracts were awarded without formal competitive bidding because, technically, they are government-to-government agreements, which are exempt from state procurement rules.
The Advertiser article goes on to detail stabbings, riots and other problems with CCA prisons. After reading the rest of the Advertiser article, it's hard to justify the conclusion that "CCA has generally done a good job."

It's high time for further investigation into Hawaii's placement of about 1,800 inmates on the Mainland with a company that can't guarantee their safety, and time also to review how the number of inmates in custody can be reduced through more sensible drug policy including additional prevention and treatment programs designed to reduce incarceration.


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