Visitation is Rehabilitation But Not With Cancellation

prison_visitationImagine your father is in a Hawaii prison doing ten years for possessing a large amount of marijuana.  This is your father’s first offense and his first time being in a correctional facility.  He looks forward to personal visits from you.  Visitation hours at Hawaii Prisons are very limited and short.  Prison visitations only occur on weekends or state holidays.  Non-sentenced inmates may be visited between 8:30 AM to 10:45 AM.  Sentenced inmates may be visited from 12:30 PM to 2:45 PM.   However, these visits must be scheduled ahead of time and various forms must be completed with each visit. You finally have time this weekend to see him and you’re excited and so is your father.  You live quite a distance from the prison…or maybe even another island away.  After travelling from home to the correctional facility, you pull into the parking lot only to be faced with a “No Visitors Allowed” sign.  How would you feel?  Angry?  Frustrated?  Sad?  Disappointed?

The anecdote above, although fictional, speaks truth about the reality many families and inmates face when dealing with abrupt prison visitation cancellations.  Prison visitation cancellations are a serious, real, and ongoing issue in America.  In fact, it’s happening in our own backyard in Hawaii with prison cancellations occurring frequently due to absent staff.  It’s hard to empathize with the “criminals” thus it’s not so surprising that our society forgets that prison is meant for rehabilitation and these criminals will eventually have to come out and reintegrate back into society.  Studies, which will be explained in later paragraphs, in summary, have shown that more visitations equal higher chances of successful integration into society.  Therefore, I believe prisons should encourage visitation instead of making it a lesser priority, especially in Hawaii.  We need to disregard the notion that visitation is a privilege instead of a right.  If rehabilitation is one of the main functions of prisons, then we should encourage the factor of visitation if it helps that function to succeed.

There is a study that was done and its findings concluded that visitation reduces the likelihood of re-offending.  Visits are associated with improved behavior at the institution and better recidivism outcomes.  Between 2003-2007, 16,420 prisoners were studied.  The variables included: inmate-visitor relationship, any visits at all, number of visitors, total number of visits, average monthly number of visits, and recent number of visits.  What the study found was that any single visit reduced recidivism by 13% and a 25% reduction in likelihood of violating parole.  Those percentages increased as the number of visits increased.  Grant Duwe, the director of research for the Minnesota Department of Corrections who led the research team, said, “I think the completion of this study gives us some tangible evidence to show that if we can increase visitation, we can give offenders more of the social support they need to succeed.  But most state prison systems continue to see visitation as a privilege, not a tool to help inmates establish law-abiding lives after their release.  I don’t know if there has been a great deal of thought given to the public safety benefits that visitation might have”.

On Saturday, March 22, 2014, visitations were canceled at two jails (Oahu and the Big Island prison) because of a shortage of workers.  “Shortage of workers is a recurring problem”, says Senator Will Espero of Ewa, Ewa Beach.  He’s heard about workers constantly calling in sick.  Espero also says, “This is not a new issue.  It’s come up a year ago, two years ago, four years ago”.  The blame is placed on people out on sick leave and an abundance of job vacancies.  Visitors only found out by: calling the prison ahead of time, by seeing the “no visitors allowed” sign, or the empty visitor parking lot.  Toni Schwartz, public information officer for the Department of Public Safety, says that safety or security cannot be compromised so the visitations must be canceled.  Which is understandable.  Scwartz says that they are in the process of hiring more workers and training them.  However, the job is tough which is why it is difficult to get new hires.

Here is another case in point of blatant abuse of sick leave and the detrimental costs incurred with it.  On the day of the Superbowl this year, one third of the 214 adults corrections officers scheduled to work called in sick.  On Superbowl 2013, 69 were out sick.  The abuse of sick leave causes staff shortage at the prison, which causes cancellations of visitations.  Oahu residents are allowed one weekend day per week to visit inmates.  Not a single Sunday this year and not a single day of March had been available as of March 22, 2014.  On New Year’s Day, 53 guards called in sick.  Sick leave costs taxpayers millions.  Guards who do show up to work have to work overtime to compensate for those who didn’t show up.  The cost of overtime at OCCC was at $2.6 million for fiscal year 2013, and $3.2 million for 2012.  Doctor’s notes are only required if the sickness if five consecutive days.  Since they are state workers, they are entitled to 21 days of sick leave per year.  Even if they run out of sick leave, officers can leave using the Family and Medical and Leave Act for family and medical reasons like caring for an immediate family member with serious illness or for one’s own illness.  With that, they can take up to 60 sick days in addition to the 21 days.  That’s about 6 days per month.  Even if the sick days are unpaid, overtime is.  Ted Sakai, Department of Public Safety Director, says it is hard to prove workers are not sick and takes a lot of investigative resources, which they don’t have.  Therefore, Sakai acknowledges there is a problem with sick leave abuse, but they will not go out of their way to prove it. He also adds that corrections officers have a very stressful job, which could endanger their health if overworked.  Also, tightening the sick leave rules would be resisted by the United Public Workers Union who represents the corrections officers.  For a solution, the Department of Public Safety has increased the standards for new hires and is screening out unfit individuals.

It’s understandable if one finds it hard to empathize with these criminals.  “They did the crime, they should do the time” is one argument often heard against these criminals.  “Should’ve thought about their families before they did the crime” is another argument.  Yes, it is true that some of these criminals may be the worst of society and violated the social contract of law.  Why should rule breakers deserve our empathy?  If you can’t empathize, then at least realize these thoughts will bite society in the butt by costing us millions in tax dollars later.  The following paragraph will demonstrate how not taking visitation cancellation seriously can financially harm our taxpayer dollars.

In this article, “Prison Visits Make Inmates Less Likely to Commit Crimes After Release, Study Finds”, by John Rudolf, he quotes the cost of a single parole violation to cost taxpayers up to $9,000.  A prisoner who re-offends and spends more time behind bars can cost even more than that.  Here’s another article to put this fiscal issue into a local, close-to-home perspective.  “State Unveils New Plan for New Prisons Here” by Jim Dooley presents the costs of housing inmates in Hawaii and for Hawaii inmates on the mainland.  Including medical treatment, travel expenses, and other factors, the daily cost per inmate in an out of state prison is $76.18.  There are about 1,738 inmates from Hawaii in a private Arizona prison alone.  That means in one fiscal year, just Arizona Hawaii inmates cost the taxpayers around $4,766,302.40.  Hawaii inmates are about $128 a day.  As of January 2013, there are about 5,738 prisoners imprisoned locally.  Local inmates cost $264,407,040 in one fiscal year.  If you put those two totals together, you get the grand total of 269,173,342.40 per yearI think you, the reader, can join me in saying, “THAT’S A LOT OF MONEY!” 

Prison systems across the US, including Hawaii, acknowledge that prison visitations are important for the inmate’s rehabilitation and reintegration back into society.  That’s why the canceled visits is concerning because it could pose a potential threat to public safety.   Due to the many cancellations, it’s no wonder why many families just stopped visiting.  Many of the inmates have a mental illness so the shortage of visitation especially has a detrimental impact on them.  Ted Sakai points out that unused sick leave is compensated at the end of the year.  However, that is also the problem.  Too many prison guards treat sick days as “vacation days” to which they are entitled.  But sick days should be used for recuperating from illnesses.

The reality is that many prisoners eventually have to return and reintegrate into society unless they’re on death row or serving a life sentence (but there’s still a chance of exoneration!).   If visitation is a helpful tool in reducing re-offense and promoting rehabilitation, then I think we should do all that we can in encouraging visitation.   The issue of our Hawaii correctional officers abusing sick leave makes me fear for public safety.  It’s scary to think there are selfish correctional officers who would sacrifice public safety just to watch the Superbowl.  If understaffing or the plague of sickness due to workplace stress is the cause of prison visitation cancellations, then maybe we should get creative.  Perhaps extend visitation hours so more people have a chance to visit or utilize web cam visitation.  All in all, I understand people get sick but 60 to 72 guards out of about 214 on Superbowl Sunday… I call shenanigans!



One Comment to “Visitation is Rehabilitation But Not With Cancellation”

  1. I’m not sure if it is fair to call correctional officers “selfish.” We don’t have to work in such a tough and dangerous environment. However, they need to re-think employee contracts, and maybe implement a stringent code of conduct for employees. They have to bring unions to the negotiating table. In fact, we need to re-examine the entire prison system in America. We have the highest incarceration rates in the world (considering other developed nations). I am very sympathetic to minor offenders, but I am generally unconcerned about prisoners who have committed gruesome crimes. I don’t think prison rehabilitates inmates at all; it seems to hardened them. Since it will take some time for America to overhaul the system, they can certainly employ technology- as you suggest- to avoid cancellations, but who is going to monitor their exchange if the prison is understaffed?

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