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Senators Move To Cut The Pay Of The Top Staffer On Hawaii’s Prison Oversight Commission

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Senators Move To Cut The Pay Of The Top Staffer On Hawaii’s Prison Oversight Commission

Feb 09, 2024 | 9:14 am ET
By Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat
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Halawa Correctional Facility inmates walk on what is known as “Main Street” inside the prison. Lawmakers will consider a bill that would reduce the pay of Oversight Coordinator Christin Johnson, who monitors conditions inside. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)
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Halawa Correctional Facility inmates walk on what is known as “Main Street” inside the prison. Lawmakers will consider a bill that would reduce the pay of Oversight Coordinator Christin Johnson, who monitors conditions inside. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Members of the Legislature are once again taking aim at the embattled Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission by advancing a bill to slash the pay of the commission’s top staffer by tens of thousands of dollars.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz and Sen. Troy Hashimoto co-sponsored the measure that would set the new salary range.

Christin Johnson has held the coordinator’s job since 2022. The commission has drawn public attention to alarming problems such as severe jail overcrowding, broken surveillance cameras and other security lapses.

Critics of the bill to cut Johnson’s pay said it appears to be the latest in a series of aggressive moves by some senators to undermine or defund the commission.

For example, the Legislature failed in the final days of last year’s session to appropriate any money for the commission to pay its staff. Gov. Josh Green had to step in to provide discretionary state funds to keep the commission operating.

Salary Set For A ‘Tough Job’

Retired Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson described a hearing planned Friday on the bill as a “threshold point” for the commission and for all of the efforts in recent years to improve the state correctional system.

“It’s fascinating. It’s a bill that just is a bold statement that legislative power is going to be used to target a person,” Wilson said.

He said he has never before seen a measure like it, and questioned whether it may violate Johnson’s due process rights.

The text of the bill offers no justification for suddenly cutting the oversight coordinator’s pay, and Wilson said it’s consistent with recent efforts by Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Tommy Johnson to push back against the commission.

Tommy Johnson informed the commission last fall that neither he nor his staff would attend commission meetings, but reversed that decision weeks later after discussions with commission members.

Department spokeswoman Rosemarie Bernardo said Tommy Johnson was traveling and not available for comment on Thursday.

The law that created the oversight commission in 2019 calls for the oversight coordinator to be paid the same salary as the state director of the Department of Human Resources Development, which is $175,056 a year.

Senate Bill 3283 would reduce Christin Johnson’s salary to that of the DHRD deputy director, which ranges from $152,292 to $161,028. If it passes, the new law would take effect Dec. 1.

The bill is scheduled to be heard Friday afternoon by the Senate Public Safety and Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee. Dela Cruz and Hashimoto did not respond to requests for comment.

Recommendations For Change

Christin Johnson was appointed by former Gov. David Ige, and previously worked at the sprawling New York City jail complex on Rikers Island. Shortly after she took over as oversight coordinator, she began touring both in-state and out-of-state correctional facilities that hold Hawaii inmates.

Her public reports since then have described problems such as the failure of a crucial electronic storage system for inmate health records, and conditions in the Hilo jail that had deteriorated to the point that a Big Island judge described them as “atrocious.”

Christin Johnson also warned that a lack of functioning video cameras in the women’s prison in Kailua increased opportunities for abuse at that facility. Another tour she made with the commission found a security lapse and other problems at the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Most recently the commission disclosed ongoing electrical failures in portions of Halawa Correctional Facility, the state’s largest prison.

To date the commission has made 55 formal recommendations for changes in the operations of the prisons and jails. Tommy Johnson told the commission on Dec. 21 that the department has implemented “the vast majority” of those.

Commission Chairman Mark Patterson said it is disheartening that the senators are focusing on the oversight coordinator’s salary.

“You’ve got millions of dollars in overtime, millions of dollars in lawsuits, you’ve got justice involved individuals dying in your prisons, not to mention suicides by staff and all of those issues, and you’re focusing on a salary,” he said. “It’s just mind boggling that their focus is on her salary.”

‘This Is Unusual’

State Rep. Gregg Takayama, who was chairman of the House Public Safety Committee when the commission was created, said the oversight coordinator’s salary was deliberately set at the same level as the state ombudsman, who performs a somewhat similar oversight function.

Both positions receive the same pay as many state department heads. “It is an important job, a lot of responsibility, and we were looking for someone with the experience and the ability to do this tough job,” Takayama said.

Daniel Foley, a retired Intermediate Court of Appeals judge, said he understands that legislators and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials may not be comfortable with an outspoken commission and a vocal oversight coordinator, “but it serves a purpose.”

Foley was legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii in 1984, and sued the state over unconstitutional conditions at the women’s prison and the old Oahu Prison. That lawsuit resulted in the state being placed under a federal consent decree for 15 years.

“You really need someone to have access,” Foley said. “The prisons are closed to the public, and Christin Johnson’s role has been to enter the facilities to scrutinize conditions.”

“I would hope no one has any retaliatory motive in mind or undermining the commission,” Foley said. “This is unusual. I haven’t seen one like this before.”