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Hawaii Prison Guards’ Union Fights Policy of Denying Promotions

by Matt Clarke 

In Hawaii, the United Public Workers union represents around 13,000 state and county employees, including approximately 1,200 prison guards. The union has been engaged in a seven-year battle against the Department of Public Safety’s policy of denying promotions to guards who were suspended for disciplinary violations within the preceding two years.

Having unsuccessfully pursued that claim before the Merits Appeals Board, the circuit court and appellate court, the union is taking the case to the Supreme Court of Hawaii. 

The union’s argument centers around the requirement of Article XVI of the state constitution that public employment “shall be based on the merit principle.” It claims that, in the consolidated cases of five prison guards who were denied promotions in 2010 and 2011, the policy prevented the best candidate from being promoted in violation of the merit principle. It noted there is no such “bright line” prohibiting the promotion of guards who, for example, have been fired from previous jobs or convicted of a criminal offense. Those cases are decided on an individual basis. The union also noted that the plaintiffs were eligible for and often received temporary assignments to higher ranks. 

The state responded that supervisors must ensure guards follow standards of conduct, so they themselves should also have a record of following those standards. Further, the temporary assignments to higher rank are governed by the collective bargaining contract with the union, which requires such assignments be offered solely on the basis of seniority; job performance and disciplinary history cannot be taken into account. 

Thus far the state’s argument has prevailed. The issue would likely be moot if the union and prison officials devoted the same effort they have put into the fight over the promotion policy into staff training so guards do not engage in misconduct that results in disciplinary violations. 

“We have no training on policies and procedures; never did,” a 30-year guard veteran testified during a 2012 Merit Appeals Board hearing. “I’ve been there 30 years, I’ve never – only one I’ve been given – only training I’ve ever been given is CPR, fire prevention, first aid, and qualifications at – what you call that – the shooting range. In my 30 years, that’s all I’ve had.”

Such training is apparently needed, not only with respect to prison policies but also in regard to more basic rules such as “thou shall not steal.” In August 2018, Kulani Correctional Facility warden Wanda Craig and prison superintendent Jerry Crivello were charged with misdemeanor theft. Craig faces a fourth-degree theft charge for stealing a crossing sign, while Crivelle faces third-degree theft for taking gates. Both were placed on leave. 



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