As budgets for nonprofit groups, schools, churches and state and city agencies have been squeezed, requests for Hawaii prison work crews to help with repair and maintenance projects have increased exponentially.
Prison officials said they were limited in their ability to meet the explosion in requests for prisoner labor that have come in the wake of the economic downturn. “There has been a vast increase in requests in the past two years,” said Francis X. Sequeira, warden at the Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC). “We can only address a finite amount of requests.”
Hawaii Correctional Industries (HCI), an arm of the Department of Public Safety, is a “self-supporting, for-profit, quasi state agency.” It receives no general funding from the state and instead relies on prison labor contracts. HCI was created in 1990 to provide prisoners with “meaningful” work. They are paid 25 cents an hour and receive a lunch from the agency or organization that has contracted for their labor.
“Just with the inmate labor alone, this is a huge cost savings,” said HCI administrator Matthew Kaneshiro. “We know, whenever the economy goes down, our program goes up.”
The largest group of prisoners on “work lines” come from the island of Oahu, which has about 300 prisoners from OCCC, the Women’s Community Correctional Center, Waiawa Correctional Facility, and in some cases Halawa Correctional Facility who qualify to participate in the work projects.
Many of HCI’s contracts are in the million dollar range or higher; the agency made around $5.7 million in fiscal year 2009. The State Department of Transportation pays $80,000 a month to HCI for five work lines, consisting of six to eight prisoners each weekday, who mostly clean freeways, highways and state roads. They also occasionally clear trash and debris from homeless encampments.
The State Department of Education (DOE) also contracts with HCI. There were concerns for child safety, however, when DOE signed a $1.07 million contract for HCI to replace playgrounds at elementary and middle schools. “We didn’t want pedophiles or child molesters on campus, and they told me they don’t let those prisoners out to work,” said Monica Kaui Baron, DOE’s playground coordinator. “They explained that these guys and women are already in the community doing work, and they were considered low-risk.
These inmates are the lowest level of security and on their way out, to be released soon.”
The 2009 contract resulted in 12 new school playgrounds on two islands. A $2.3 million contract between DOE and HCI will provide 38 more playgrounds at 28 schools. A third contract of $2.6 million will result in 41 playgrounds at 33 schools.
“They negotiate a lot better prices for us, which means we can double the size of the playgrounds,” said Kaui Baron. “We were paying a lot of money for playgrounds, and the quality wasn’t that good, in essence putting our kids at risk.”
City officials raved about the prisoners’ work and the low cost. “They cut grass, they weed-whack and perform other manual labor at various city parks, Monday through Friday,” stated Pearl City spokeswoman Louise Kim McCoy. “The only expense is to provide a box lunch ... for each inmate.”
Some prisoners see the work lines as a way to make a few dollars, enjoy the limited freedom outside and give something back. “I get to work and be in the community. It’s way better than sitting in a cell 24/7 contemplating what you did to get there. Inside, you’re just not going anywhere,” said OCCC prisoner John Carvalho.
Sources: Star Advertiser, http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com
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