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Hawaii AG Study Confirms Ineffectiveness of Mainland Private Prisons

Academic researchers in Hawaii believe that exiling offenders to private prisons thousands of miles away on the U.S. mainland is misguided. And the Hawaii Attorney General’s office (AG) – the state’s Big Kahuna of law enforcement – actually agrees.
A federally-funded report released last year by the AG recommends that Hawaii lawmakers should think twice about relying on privately-operated mainland prisons, namely Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) facilities, where about 54% of the state’s 3,700 prisoners are incarcerated.

According to researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in collaboration with the AG’s office, rehabilitation is too often viewed “mainly through the prism of cost,” also referred to as “humonetarianism.” And that’s a mistake, they contend.

“[The] focus on short-term financial costs often deflects attention away from deeper problems that plague the correctional system, such as inconsistent sentencing policies, the provision of decent medical care, the protection of inmates from sexual assault ... and the over-representation of racial minorities and the poor at all stages of the criminal justice system,” the researchers wrote. “In Hawaii and elsewhere, problems such as these suggest the short-sightedness” of cost-based corrections, including the use of private prisons.

Sociologists at UH-Manoa began studying Hawaii’s imprisonment policies in 2006, about 10 years after the state initially sent 300 prisoners to two private facilities in Texas.

“Since then,” according to the report, “the number of persons incarcerated in out-of-state private prisons has increased almost sevenfold.” Approximately 1,870 prisoners from Hawaii are incarcerated at CCA’s Saguaro Correctional Center and Red Rock Correctional Center, both in Eloy, Arizona, and about 160 female prisoners were held at CCA’s Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky before they were returned to Hawaii following a sex scandal involving CCA employees. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.16; Oct. 2009, p.40].

For the past several years, the report contends, Hawaii has led “all other states in holding the highest percentage of its prison population in out-of-state” facilities.

The study’s project director, Paul Perrone, chief of research and statistics for the Hawaii AG’s office, oversaw UH-Manoa researchers who examined Hawaii Paroling Authority files and coded each parolee based on demographics, criminal and sentencing history, and disciplinary record while incarcerated. After analyzing data for 660 former prisoners, 168 of whom served time on the mainland, researchers found no evidence that private prisons save the state money or result in lower recidivism rates, in comparison with state-run facilities.

In terms of recidivism, the report found that “The recidivism rate for the mainland cohort (53 percent) was slightly low-er than the recidivism rate for the Hawaii cohort (56 percent), but this difference is not statistically significant.”

Researchers noted that “Since there is no empirical justification for the policy argument that private prisons reduce recidivism better than public prisons, the State of Hawaii should decide whether to continue, discontinue, expand, or contract its reliance on private prisons based on other criteria. While cost is one criterion, it is not the only one that is important to consider.”

Hawaii pays CCA about $62 per day to incarcerate its prisoners in Arizona, as opposed to $118 per day to hold them in Hawaii facilities. But “the costs of private imprisonment are more than merely financial, because relying on mainland private prisons severs a [prisoner’s] family ties, undermines rehabilitation, and decreases the odds of successful employment after release,” according to the report.

“The present estimate of the cost of private imprisonment,” the researchers added, “is far from all-inclusive, for it does not include several hidden costs, including transportation to and from the mainland, ... lower levels of staffing and service in private prisons that may be preoccupied with the ‘bottom line,’ increased expenditures on inmates’ phone conversations and in-person visits with family and friends, ... and losses in federal funding that come because the U.S. census counts persons according to the states in which they are incarcerated.”

And citing a federal study that indicated private prisons were susceptible to higher rates of staff turnover, escapes and drug use by prisoners, the report further weakened the appeal of sending more Hawaii prisoners to mainland facilities in the future.

“States and their leaders have a responsibility to care not only about crime control and the costs of incarceration but also about the present welfare and future well-being of criminal offenders and the communities from which they come,” the researchers noted. “The pressures to be penny-wise and pound-foolish are especially strong in this time of financial crisis, and that is another reason why they must be resisted.”

Prior to the release of the AG study, the State Auditor of Hawaii had strongly criticized the state’s private prison con-tracts in a December 2010 report. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.38]. However, despite such criticism, and Governor Neil Abercrombie’s expressed desire to return Hawaii prisoners from mainland facilities, the state has insufficient prison bed space on the islands. Lacking the political will or courage to enact sentencing reform, Hawaii continues sending its prisoners to private prisons on the mainland.

Source: “Hawaii’s Imprisonment Policy and the Performance of Parolees Who Were Incarcerated In-State and on the Mainland,” State of Hawaii Attorney General (Jan. 2011), available at

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