Whistleblower Alleges Hawaii Prison Officials Provided False Audit Data
A staffer says false data in a 2018 audit of the Maui jail hid deviations from staffing requirements under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
by Kevin Dayton, Honolulu Civil Beat
State officials submitted data for a federal audit of the Maui jail in 2018 that dramatically understated the number of times the facility failed to comply with staffing requirements under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, according to a whistleblower at the jail.
Corrections Sgt. Teresa Rabanes, a supervisor at the Maui Community Correctional Center, said data submitted for the federal audit was false and was contradicted by staff log books at the jail. She said she took her concerns to the FBI.
Rabanes said in a recent interview she sat for three interviews with FBI investigators, and an official with the agency then told her the investigation was turned over state authorities. Rabanes said she heard nothing further about any inquiry into the audit after that exchange.
Rabanes opted to go public now with her concerns about the Maui jail audit after learning that two major public worker unions—the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the United Public Workers—are questioning the credibility of an administrator who oversaw the audit.
The state Department of Public Safety said in an emailed response to questions that it was not notified of the alleged inaccuracies until April 2019, when the issue was raised by a member of the state Senate.
The department then sent a letter asking for more specific information, but “did not receive any details based on our letter and follow-up telephone inquiry,” according to the department’s written statement. The department never received any information from the FBI about the matter, according to the statement.
Prison Rape Elimination Act audits are detailed reviews of the efforts by prisons and jails to meet the requirements of the 2003 federal law, better known in the prison system as PREA.
The act requires that correctional facilities meet an array of regulations and requirements designed to prevent sexual assaults inside facilities, or to respond effectively when assaults do happen. The audits are performed by corrections officials trained and certified by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Sexual assault in prisons and jails is a longstanding problem in Hawaii and elsewhere, and in the year covered by the 2018 Maui audit, there were a dozen allegations of sexual abuse of inmates at MCCC. Three of those cases were substantiated, and there was one criminal conviction in an inmate abuse case, according to the report.
The report did not note any cases of sexual assaults of inmates by corrections workers during the year-long audit period, but MCCC inmates have been assaulted by staff in the past.
The most famous case involved former MCCC Warden Albert Murashige, who was sentenced to a year in jail in 2004 after pleading no contest to four counts of sexual assault for a series of encounters with a female prisoner in Murashige’s office.
More recently, former MCCC guard James Siugpiyemal is serving a sentence of up to 10 years in prison for three sexual assault convictions involving a work furlough prisoner in 2014.
About 15% of the prisoners at MCCC are women, and the latest population count shows 53 women were being held at the facility in November, 2021.
One of many steps the jail takes to try to prevent assaults of female prisoners is designating two guard posts in MCCC as “gender specific.” Female guards are supposed to work at those two posts because the duties there involve supervising female prisoners in their living quarters.
But Rabanes and a second MCCC staff member who spoke on condition that he not be identified say there are not enough women guards. Often that means the facility deviates from its staffing plan by assigning men to work at those gender-specific posts.
In those cases, two male adult guards are assigned to one of the female-only posts. This happened so frequently in the year leading up to the 2018 audit that male guards would complain because the practice required some to work involuntary overtime, according to Rabanes and the second staff member.
In cases where men were used to staff the gender-specific posts, a “PREA mandated reporting form” was filed with the department’s PREA Coordinator to document the deviation from the staffing plan and explain the reason. At the time of the 2018 audit, the PREA Coordinator was Shelley Harrington, who was present for the Maui audit in 2018.
After the 2018 PREA audit was posted on the Department of Public Safety’s web site, Rabanes said she discovered false data included in the report that minimized the ongoing practice of using men to staff the female-only MCCC posts.
The 2018 report states that MCCC had “three documented deviations from the staffing plan in the last 12 months for the auditor to review. The reason for the deviations were a shortage of female staff.”
But Rabanes said she knew of seven specific cases shown in a sampling of the facility log books where men had been assigned to the women-only posts from Oct. 20, 2017 to the end of the year. She said she presented that information to Harrington at a pre-disciplinary hearing in 2018 in a dispute over staffing of those posts.
Rabanes also cites a more recent PREA audit of MCCC completed on Oct. 27 that shows a much larger number of staffing deviations. That report describes 134 deviations from the facility staffing plan that were documented in 417 pages of PREA Mandated Reporting Forms for the year covered by the 2021 audit.
According to this year’s audit, “The most common reason for deviation was when there were not enough female correctional officers to staff gender-specific posts.”
Public Safety officials said in a written response to questions that the data Rabanes is challenging in the 2018 audit was only a “sampling” of MCCC staffing deviations that was taken for the audit. That sampling was not supposed to be a tally of every instance where the facility failed to comply.
According to the department’s written statement, a check of its records for staffing deviations at MCCC from about September 2016 to September 2017 showed 20 documented examples of deviations from the staffing plan at MCCC. The department sampled that period for the audit, which is why a smaller number was reflected in the audit.
“The difference in the sampling vs. the entire year is not unusual and cannot be construed to indicate false and/or inaccurate reporting,” according to the statement from the department.
However, that practice appears to conflict with guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice, which publishes a list of the documents that PREA auditors should gather before undertaking an audit. That guidance says the required records include “documentation of deviations from the staffing plan and written justifications for all such deviations.”
The issue is technical, but not trivial. Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law, said using men to supervise women’s living quarters can create a number of problems, including situations when male guards might see women undressed or showering.
“It’s not just about litigation. It’s also about the harm and trauma that women experience, and also the opportunities for abuse,” she said. Smith has directed The Project on Addressing Prison Rape since 1998, and served on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission created by the U.S. Congress in 2003.
Smith said facilities “absolutely” have reasons to make their PREA compliance look better than it actually is during audits such as those at MCCC. “What typically ends up happening is there is undercounting of incidents that occur,” she said.
The data showing that staffing deviations at MCCC jumped from three in the 2018 audit to 134 in 2021, “could suggest a problem, or it could suggest better surveillance,” Smith said. “The (134) number puts into question the three number.”
“Oftentimes agencies get in trouble because … they don’t want to report they have these incidents,” she said. “One of the problems about not reporting that you have those incidents is, then it means that it’s hard to take action if you don’t have a problem.”
“If you have a problem, it is better to identify, it is better to surveil, identify and remediate, and that’s actually what the Prison Rape Prevention [Rape Elimination] Act is about,” she said.
Smith added that there is “an abundance of technical assistance, there is an abundance of funding if agencies come forward and say ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem with this or that.’ But it is a rare agency that does that.”
Rabanes said complaints from staff including male guards who had to work at the gender-specific posts finally prompted MCCC in 2020 to bring in more women as emergency hires to cover the gender-specific posts, but that created new problems because the emergency hires were poorly trained.
When asked how it is addressing the issue, the department replied in its statement that it “prioritizes the placement of new female recruits at the facilities with approved gender-specific posts. PSD also utilizes higher-ranking female staff to fill gender-specific posts whenever possible before assigning males.”
When that is not possible, the PREA standards dealing with a facility’s staffing plan “do not prohibit male staff from working in female housing units, but it does require that any deviation in the staffing plan be reported.
The department also noted that the 2021 audit found MCCC complied with all PREA standards.
“PSD has diligently attempted to fill the gender-specific posts with female staff, but if female staff is unavailable … the facility must still fill the post,” according to the statement.
[Editor’s Note: As PLN has reported extensively over the years since the PREA was enacted, it is important to note that the PREA is merely a data collection act, which relies on self-reported data by prisons and jails at that with no audits or checks as to its accuracy.]
This article was originally published November 12, 2021 by Honolulu Civil Beat (civilbeat.org); reprinted with permission. Copyright 2021, Civil Beat.
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