Inmates screaming, throwing feces, refusing to wear clothes. That’s the new reality, corrections workers say, at Hawaii Community Correctional Center, which is bursting at the seams with mentally ill inmates.
Inmates screaming, throwing feces, refusing to wear clothes.
That’s the new reality, corrections workers say, at Hawaii Community Correctional Center, which is bursting at the seams with mentally ill inmates.
“They live in conditions that have been described as ‘unimaginable,’ very crowded,” Warden Peter Cabreros recently told the County Council. “These inmates struggle to maintain their personal hygiene on a daily basis.”
Cabreros, who took over in July, said the module housing mentally ill inmates, designed for 44, now has a population of 100, of whom 60 have serious mental illnesses.
“It’s a struggle for security staff and health care staff to manage these inmates,” Cabreros said. “This seems like corrections has become a warehouse to treat these individuals. We need help because we’re not properly equipped.”
A sharp cutback in state community mental health programs is overburdening police and prosecutors, clogging the courts and playing havoc with the state corrections system, advocates of a new community “Stepping Up” initiative told the County Council.
The council, after several meetings about the issue, on Tuesday passed Resolution 268, paving the way for the county to receive federal grants and support to provide alternatives for nonviolent mentally ill people who commit crimes. The program, endorsed by more than 50 public and private entities on the island trying to reintegrate former offenders into the community, also could draw on Medicare and Medicaid funds to help ensure those who need it get the care they deserve, advocates say.
“The recidivism in our county will lower significantly and our Department of Public Safety personnel will not face the stress and frustration of having our facilities over capacity, and therefore, overburdened,” said Irene Nagao, vice president of the Going Home Consortium, in written testimony shared by several other mental health workers. “This will make for a much safer, healthier and productive community for all of us to work, play and enjoy.”
There is pressure within the judicial system to release mentally ill individuals, rather then keep them in the crowded jails, said Hilo resident Joe Pierce, testifying Tuesday.
Pierce described his recent experience in a Hilo courtroom where a judge was dealing with an obviously mentally incapacitated woman. The judge was asking a series of questions, he said, in order to release the woman on her own recognizance. The disheveled woman remained mute to the questions, Pierce said.
As the judge went through his checklist, he would say, “I see you shaking your head yes,” Pierce recounted.
“Her head never moved,” Pierce said. “I was standing 4 feet away from her.”
“Where are these people going?” Pierce asked. “What’s going to happen to them?”
Jedidiah Kaye, a psychiatric social worker at Hawaii Community Correctional Center, said he’s observed the problems firsthand in the institution.
“The criminalization of the mentally ill and dually diagnosed is real and it’s happening in this county and all across the United States,” Kaye said. “We can do better.”
Whatever else happens to them, the violent ones simply can’t be released to the street, said County Prosecutor Mitch Roth.
“We’ve had people who have killed people. Do we just let those people go?” Roth asked.
Roth objected to the term “criminalization,” saying the police, prosecutor and judicial system have to keep communities safe.
“I don’t think we’re criminalizing mental illness,” Roth said. “We’re having people committing crimes who are mentally ill.”
Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan, sponsor of the resolution, acknowledged mental health and corrections are state responsibilities. But if the county doesn’t get involved, how will the state know there’s a problem, he asked.