Sheriffs get vehicles after breakdowns; West Hawaii facility could alleviate need for cross-island transport of custodies

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KEALAKEKUA — Sheriffs have new wheels for transporting custodies to and from Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo for court hearings in Kealakekua.

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KEALAKEKUA — Sheriffs have new wheels for transporting custodies to and from Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo for court hearings in Kealakekua.

On Friday afternoon, a 2015 Chevrolet van and a 2014 Chevrolet Caprice arrived in West Hawaii from Oahu to address a dilemma that came about earlier this month when the Kona Sheriffs’ second Ford passenger van broke down and was towed to the courthouse on Feb. 8, leaving deputies in a bind to transport custodies themselves, as is their duty. The Sheriff’s other Ford van had broken down some time before that, and the section’s two Ford Crown Vics are unsuited for transport of multiple custodies.

“The sheriffs division recognized Kona’s dilemma and acted immediately to provide two vehicles from Oahu,” said Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state department, in an emailed response to questions. “This is a permanent vehicle transfer. … We have found that four vehicles have been sufficient, however, we are still looking at repairing one of the vans.”

In a follow-up email, she added that the department began the process of sending the vehicles over about two weeks ago.

However, the vehicle issue had been festering for months, according to sources. West Hawaii Today staff also witnessed numerous instances during coverage of a high-profile trial during January and February in which deputies were overheard discussing how they would get custodies — male and female — back to the island’s jail in the afternoon prior to HCCC stepping in to help when the second van went offline.

For the past couple weeks, Schwartz said the Sheriff Division had sought assistance from the Corrections Division, which helped by providing a corrections officer and one of its vans from Hawaii Community Correctional Center to ensure custodies made court appearances, she said.

That resulted in overtime for staff because of the duration of the 240-mile round-trip, which can take five to six hours, between Hilo and Kona, Schwartz said when queried earlier this week about the issue.

“Only as of last week have Hilo Sheriffs been called upon to provide assistance with the movement of custodies from Kona to Hilo due to the unexpected mechanical failure of the vans,” she said via email response, referring to the week beginning Feb. 13. “Hilo deputies have been graciously available to travel to Kona to assist. Hilo deputies leave Hilo about 1530 (3:30 p.m.) and arrive at the Kona Court house by 1730 (5:30 p.m.).”

When asked earlier this week about whether the department could purchase vans for the Kona section, Schwartz noted the permanent transfer of the vans on Friday and said the department does not have a line item in its budget for vehicle replacement, but that if resources are made available from all funding sources, the department can prioritize the purchase of vehicles. It’s also a problem that spans statewide for the Sheriff Division.

“The Sheriff Division have requested funding for a vehicle replacement program to ensure that purchases of vehicles becoming a recurring item in their budget. We have been unsuccessful in getting support for this request,” she said. “The program will continue to pursue general funding requests for replacement vehicles, as well as tap into other means of funding when available.”

Hawaii Island legislators Rep. Richard Creagan, (D-Naalehu, Ocean View, Captain Cook, Kealakekua and Kailua-Kona); Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, Kalaoa and Honokohau); Rep. Cindy Evans (D-North Kona, North Kohala and South Kohala); Sen. Josh Green (D-Kona and Ka’u); and Sen. Lorraine Inouye (Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Waimea, Waikoloa and Kona) said they were unaware of the issue at the Kona courthouse, but immediately said if it the Department of Public Safety requests funding, they would support the effort.

In response, Schwartz said “We always welcome their support and are happy to sit down and discuss our needs and options with them.”

The newly transferred vehicles — and plans to fix the other van, which would increase the number of vehicles for Kona Sheriffs to five — are a solution for now. But in the long-term, transporting custodies hundreds of miles each day may have to be addressed differently, say some Big Island lawmakers representing West Hawaii.

“I think that we have to have safe vehicles for the sheriffs and to make sure they have adequate equipment, but, it’s unfortunate we still have to commute from the east to the west and I hope sometime in the future, we can look at building a small facility in West Hawaii so we can stop this,” said Evans.

Creagan shared similar sentiment. A member of the House Public Safety Committee, Creagan said plans for the Kona Judiciary Complex initially had called for additional holding cells that could hold inmates overnight, but that was scaled back amid budget concerns. That would have been preferable as custodies would be closer to the courthouse, but there are other means for addressing the issue of transporting custodies between east and west Hawaii Island being considered, he said.

During a recent conversation with Public Safety Committee Chairman Greg Takayama, Creagan said he was told the goal is to have a “small secondary jail on the Kona side that would alleviate some of these problems.” That would likely occur around the time HCCC is renovated, he added.

“Eventually, we will almost certainly have some sort of jail facility on the Kona side,” Creagan said. “I would be surprised if it was done in five years.”

Schwartz, DPS spokeswoman, said Gov. David Ige released $1.8 million on Feb. 21 to begin planning and design of new housing at HCCC. It is still too early to tell when construction can begin, she added.

She also said the department agrees with the lawmakers that a facility is needed in the Kona area and that it welcomes any legislative assistance or support in making that happen.

A request for information put out in November 2013 regarding design, construction and financing of new or expanded prison facilities across the state included the building of a West Hawaii facility, she added. That request sought information on the construction of a new 250-bed facility on state land in West Hawaii.

“A new jail would provide for the detention and reentry needs of inmates from West Hawaii and help us reduce the overtime associated with travel between Hilo and Kona for both the Sheriffs and Corrections Division,” she said.

Green said the ultimate decision on the building of a facility should be determined by the department via its master plan as they will have most information available about what is really needed to service the population.

He added that Hawaii also needs to look at reducing the number of people confined to facilities, for example by decriminalizing marijuana, and treating people rather than just imprisoning them because there are other priorities that also need to be considered, such as a new hospital in West Hawaii.

Rep. Creagan also pointed to treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners as part of the bigger picture to reduce recidivism and the number of people incarcerated in the state overall. “We need to change the way we think about this, the old way didn’t work,” he said.

A correctional justice task force established by the 2016 Legislature is currently assessing the issue and Creagan said its findings are expected to be released in late 2017. In an interim report, dated February 2017, it found Hawaii’s prison population increased 1,357 percent between 1977 when there were 398 prisoners and 2016 when there were 5,800 prisoners. During the same period, Hawaii’s population increased by about 52 percent.

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“The goal is to build a prison that will correct but is rehabilitative instead of punishment,” he said. “This is a new way of looking at prisoners. Really, a prisoner is just a good person who sometimes did one bad thing, and if you treat them as if they are bad people, they are going to stay as bad people; but if you treat them as potentially good people, that just part of them went astray, then you can salvage them.”

Follow-up requests for comment from Inouye and Lowen on the transport of custodies in the long-term were not responded to as of press time.

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