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Oʻahu prison struggles to find staff for nonessential programs, chapel services

Hālawa Correctional Facility Feb. 28 2023
Sabrina Bodon
A group holds a vigil outside of Hālawa Correctional Facility on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Kahu Kaleo Patterson led a small group in prayer outside of Hālawa Correctional Facility Tuesday morning.

"We've all been tracking what goes on in the prisons, and COVID was pretty nasty to address in the prisons and we were not able to come into the prisons at all, during COVID," said Patterson from the Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center's Native Hawaiian Church.

They're praying outside because they can’t get the OK to go in. Patterson said every service they’ve tried to host on Tuesdays at the facility in the past month has been canceled.

"We’d receive a phone call or a text on the morning that we were supposed to come in and we would be informed that there's no programs today because there's no staffing," Patterson said.

Staffing shortages over the years have presented the need to prioritize security over some other nonessential services, including chapel.

"Contractually, essential security posts have to be filled first to maintain the safety and security," the department said in an email statement. "The facility and PSD have a mandate to provide for the care and safe custody of inmates and will do what is necessary to ensure the inmates in PSD custody are taken care of."

 Kahu Kaleo Patterson, center, with Hālawa Correctional Facility Warden Shannon Cluney.
Sabrina Bodon
Kahu Kaleo Patterson, center, with Hālawa Correctional Facility Warden Shannon Cluney.

PSD has tried to fill staffing, but it's a long process and retirement of adult correctional officers is at a high, in what's commonly called the "silver tsunami."

PSD pointed to a study done by the state Department of Human Resources that found correctional officers have one of the highest retirement eligibility rates in the state.

"The job of a correctional officer is one of the toughest in State service; the attrition rate is above average, creating a situation wherein PSD must continually seek to fill vacancies to alleviate the strain on the facility’s workforce to provide for the care and safe custody of the inmates," the statement said.

"PSD is working as quickly as possible to fill vacancies through increased training cycles coupled with external recruitment campaigns," the department continued.

Cassie Chee, a senior organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said rehabilitation needs to start while inside — not just once somebody has finished their time.

"It's dangerous to be in the prison, they're understaffed," Chee said. "We believe in reform, from the time somebody gets arrested to the time that they're released."

For the next 40 days, Patterson and a small group will be on hand outside of the facility to offer backpacks filled with toiletries and necessities to those being released, a small act of service that can have a big impact.

"A lot of people in here don't have the support when they come out of prison so what you guys doing is a very positive and blessed to have this stuff and let people in and like I said don't have the resources that you guys provide," one man being released Tuesday said.

"We don't have no place to go and nothing, so to have stuff like this really helps give us hope that, you know, things can get better," he said.

The backpacks are from churches across the island, Patterson said.

"This is our plan to just be here, to work with those who are coming out of prison, and to try to help pray for the institution that's having a hard time getting people to come to work or to be available to open the chapel," he said.

Sabrina Bodon is Hawaiʻi Public Radio's government reporter. Contact her at sbodon@hawaiipublicradio.org or 808-792-8252.
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