Complaint Filed Regarding State’s Jail, Prison Status

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Big Island Now stock photo. August 2016.

Following a year-long investigation, the ACLU of Hawai‘i Foundation  has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice requesting a federal investigation and intervention to force the State of Hawaiʻi to address unconstitutional conditions and overcrowding in its jails and prisons.

The ACLU asserts that Hawai‘i prisons and jails do not meet minimum standards and violate the 8th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution which prohibit “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The complaint details civil rights violations due to persistent and severe overcrowding and underfunding in seven out of the nine jails and prisons run by the state. Overcrowding has led to system-wide deterioration in nearly every aspect of functioning.


Erosions range from severe understaffing of medical and mental health services resulting in routine denial of basic services and emergencies; unsafe food safety practices; holding three or four people in a cell designed for two; pervasive lack of hygiene items which fosters unsanitary conditions; and an aging and ill-maintained infrastructure that poses acute health risks.

“Hawaiʻi policymakers have long been warned that without a long-term plan to manage the growth of incarceration, the state could revert to conditions that led to class-action lawsuits and federal oversight,” said ACLU Legal Director Mateo Caballero. “It is critical that Hawai‘i adopt evidence-based reforms to reduce the number of people behind bars. There are ways to make meaningful change that does not sacrifice public safety.”

For example, in Hawaiʻi, there are over a thousand pretrial detainees, who have not been convicted of a crime, yet sit in jail for months awaiting trial. These detainees account for over 50% of people at the O‘ahu Community Corrections Center and almost 20% of all inmates.


The ACLU supports the wider adoption of noncash bail reforms, which identify for release individuals that pose little risk of danger or flight but sit in jail because they cannot afford bail. Such reforms are not only more just and equitable, but they also reduce overcrowding and the cost of incarceration without endangering public safety.

Nationwide and in Hawai‘i, crime rates are down, yet the number of people behind bars continues to increase. As states nationwide grapple with budget pressures and other consequences of over-incarceration, this trend has prompted some to pass legislative reforms which have reduced the number people in jail and prison, while making communities safer and saving money, the ACLU press release states.

Alaska, New Jersey, California, Utah and Oklahoma, among others, have adopted evidence-based reforms. This includes evaluating who is incarcerated, for how long and for what violation. Their efforts are reducing the number of people behind bars by modernizing policies on bail, classification of crimes, sentencing, parole and probation.


By contrast, Hawai‘i is planning to replace OCCC, doubling its original capacity at an estimated cost of up to $650 million without first evaluating how to save money by safely reducing the number of people incarcerated like other states have been doing.

“The Constitution requires that conditions of confinement in Hawai‘i must meet basic standards of legality and human decency—to correct these violations, the state must take immediate action,” Caballero concluded. “Going forward, the ACLU is hopeful that discussions about a new OCCC spark lawmakers and the broader community to commit to a more modern vision for our prisons and jails—one that reduces Hawai‘i’s overreliance on costly and unsustainable incarceration. The ACLU will redouble its advocacy because there is still time to redirect public dollars toward more effective public safety policies.”

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