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Union Sways State’s Prison Policy

Our state prisons are overcrowded, lack adequate mental health treatment and cost us too much. But Hawaii voters and law-makers seem stupefied about what to do.

Some say we must not outsource to the private Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) because bad things happened to some of our inmates at a CCA prison in Arizona. As if our record of suicides, guard absenteeism, minimal education facility and marginal psychiatric staffing here were much better.

Most of the bad-mouthing of privatized lockups is because they are non-union. Hawaii has very generous union contracts. When guards call in “sick” regularly on New Year’s and Super Bowl days (which also are family-visitation days), visitations are cut back. Can’t discipline or fire the guards. Hey, they’re sick!

We could, like 19 other states and Washington, D.C., go with CCA. That would likely mean no union. Can’t have that.

CCA certainly would require us to build a new OCCC and/or Halawa Maximum Security prison on lease-back. But we need those new prisons anyway, so that’s not a good excuse.

Contracts with private operators would need to be carefully written for our interests. We cannot have anything less than the humane treatment guaranteed under our current laws and traditions. Gangs or corrupt guards must not be given the run of our prisons.

Unions? If the employees want them and vote them in, sure. If the pay and working conditions are OK, they may not want them.

We’ve never given the private prison idea a fair hearing. The unions beat down our legislators and the prison administrators.

We have about 1,400 inmates incarcerated in a privatized Mainland prison. They only cost us $70 each per day. Gov. Neil Abercrombie has ordered all brought back here to already overcrowded and outdated facilities.

Housing an inmate here costs us on average $130 a day. And that’s only by not providing the level of mental health treatment our prison administrators will tell you is needed, unless we’re just going to handle every trouble-causing inmate as a Hannibal Lecter in isolated lock-down.

So let’s have serious hearings on privatization and not let that public workers union bugaboo carry the day.

* A respected local physician was telling me we don’t need a School of Public Health or a UH-Hilo Pharmacy School. Waste money, he says. Why? They don’t integrate health and pharmaceuticals with doctoring, he says.

Dead wrong, say I. Public health is Job No. 1 around the world and can mean fewer doctors needed. Pharmacy? Look at the spread of drugstores and supermarkets filling prescriptions. Drugs (good, lifesaving ones) are us.

We should have both schools in our mix at the University of Hawaii.

* Both The New York Times and The Guardian (London) have called on the U.S. government to consider clemency for Edward Snowden, the young man who leaked classified National Security Agency documents to those newspapers and others.

I think the charge of espionage is excessive. If we were at war and the leaked material aided the enemy, it might be enough to warrant the charge of treason. But in this case, even espionage is over the top. He wasn’t working for any foreign country.

I’d like to see him come home to face a reduced charge of theft of classified documents. He is a whistle-blower on the NSA eavesdropping, and in that he did Americans a great service.

But like Henry Thoreau with his 1800s civil disobedience and tax resistance,

Snowden needs to make his case in court, and accept some punishment for theft of secrets.

After all, he did sign that paper promising not to disclose any classified information.

* The death of Lowell Kalapa of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii hit me hard. He’d been at Christmas dinner or brunch at my house for 30 years. His 2013 gift remains under our tree.

He was our best voice on tax equality and sensibility. I didn’t always agree, and thought he tilted too far toward the businesses who funded the Tax Foundation.

But, in this past Christmas Day discussion, he said the counties had promised the state that if they got the property tax they’d no more ask for grants. They got it, and kept asking for grants.

We agreed Christmas Day that we need to control population and cars. He said Gov. George Ariyoshi suggested population control in the 1970s and was ignored.

Kalapa was right. Ariyoshi was right.