More than four years after the state Legislature passed a law requiring the prison system to issue outgoing inmates with identification cards, corrections officials say they have worked out a system to do so and have ordered the equipment needed to produce the cards.
Members of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission were briefed Thursday on efforts to provide outgoing inmates with IDs, which can be an essential tool as convicts travel, job hunt, seek housing or apply for government benefits.
Lawmakers passed Act 56 in 2017, which supporters hoped would finally end the practice of paroling or releasing prisoners at the end of their sentences with no money, and no identification.
“Obtaining employment and housing are difficult with a criminal record, and those releasing from a period of incarceration need support with their efforts in order to have a realistic opportunity of success,” the Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice argued at the time.
But the program to provide ID’s stalled for years, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii cited state data from 2019 that showed more than half of all inmates were still being released without identification.
The ACLU points out that about 95% of all inmates will be released at some point, and contends that IDs and other programs to support a successful reentry into society makes communities safer.
Department of Public Safety Deputy Director Tommy Johnson has acknowledged about half of all prisoners who were released last year still did not have ID cards but said he made the issue a priority when he was appointed to his current job in the fall of 2020.
Johnson told the commission on Thursday that agreements have been reached with the state Department of Transportation and the city’s Department of Customer Service to set up a process for screening information on the inmates.
The department also ordered a “mobile unit” that will take pictures of the prisoners whose information “checks out,” according to department spokeswoman Toni Schwartz. It will then transmit the picture and other documents to the city, which will generate state ID cards for the inmates.
The mobile unit was ordered in February, but the worldwide shortage of computer chips delayed its arrival so the department is unsure when the machine will arrive, he said.
“We’ve taken care of all of the connectivity issues, so when the machine does arrive, we’re ready to go,” Johnson said.
The spokeswoman explained that the ID system will be tested out as a pilot project at the Halawa Correctional Facility — the state’s largest prison — and expanded to other facilities if it works.
The commission also received an update on an initiative to use portable metal containers that have been modified to function as temporary quarantine cells for inmates who have Covid-19. Prisoners are still not being housed in the containers, commissioners were told.
Properly isolating inmates who are infected or have been exposed to the coronavirus has been a challenge at times in the state’s crowded correctional facilities, and the new temporary housing was supposed to help solve that problem.
The department ordered 11 containers that cost $124,000 each, and are equipped with air-conditioning and toilets. Each container has four housing units that are eight-feet long and 10-feet wide.
Two of the units were delivered to the Oahu Community Correctional Center in December, and one each was delivered to Maui Community Correctional Center, Hawaii Community Correctional Center and Kauai Community Correctional Center later in the year, according to the department.
The department eventually plans to deploy four containers at OCCC, two more at Halawa, and one each at the Women’s Community Correctional Center and Waiawa Correctional Facility.
The plan hit a snag because the electric system at the aging OCCC cannot handle the additional load of the containers, and the containers lacked correctional-grade locking systems. Those issues have prevented the facilities from using the containers thus far, according to the department.
Max Otani, director of the department, said MCCC is the facility that is closest to actually putting a container into service, but Johnson said the department is still awaiting installation of locks, and completion of the water and sewer hookups.