Cliff Slater’s Second Opinion

Big Island prison won’t work


We are about to build a prison on the Big Island in order, I am told, to "end the costly practice" of sending prisoners to the Mainland. Anyone opposing this prison is, according to Governor Cayetano, "not living in the real world."(1)

Let us look at this "costly practice." First, our basic cost of housing each Hawaii inmate in private prisons on the Mainland is $42 per day.(2) To that must be added $3 per prisoner day to cover certain administrative costs and air travel back and forth. It adds up to a total of $45 per day—everything included. (3)

Compare this to the cost of maintaining a prisoner in a Hawaii government prison. A figure of $28,000 annually, or $77 per day, is often used but this is merely the raw labor cost of prison employees. This does not include any personnel benefits such as pensions and medical, any administrative overhead items such as insurance and legal services, or any capital cost relating to land, buildings or other physical facilities.

No one knows the total cost is because our state’s accounting system does not allow us to calculate it accurately. (Remember that the recent ratings of states for information technology left us dead last—we got an "F.") (4) Mr. Ted Sakai, new head of our prison system, believes that a reasonable estimate of total daily cost would be in the order of $110 per day. (5)

So, it comes down to this: Do we want to spend $45 per day or $110 per day to incarcerate each of our 2,300 prisoners? In other words, do we want to spend $38 million keeping them on the Mainland or $92 million annually keeping them here?

Alert readers may believe that I am not posing a serious question. However, one governor, and the overwhelming majority of 25 senators and 51 house representatives, having duly considered what is in the taxpayers’ best interests, are now seriously intent on building a prison here—the most expensive option.

We recognize that it is payback time for those whom the public worker unions helped into office during this last election. We recognize that such acts are part of the political system we have carefully nurtured over the past decades. However, this new prison project is going a little far even for Hawaii. It is even out of line with what Mr. Rodrigues, head of the United Public Workers union, usually demands.

It is about time that Mr. Rodrigues got with the "real world." After all, according to the national corrections officers association, his parent union, the AFL-CIO, is one of the biggest investors in Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator. It is also no coincidence that the AFL-CIO and Mr. Rodrigues’ union, AFSCME, are the only unions representing CCA’s employees. (6)

Maybe we could get Mr. Rodrigues to compromise and have a privately operated prison in Hawaii with him providing the union. It would be more expensive than housing prisoners on the Mainland but far less than our current costs.

Such a compromise would also have the advantage of being only a slightly corrupt practice, instead of one that is totally corrupt, and thus would at least have our state moving in the right direction.



(1) Honolulu Advertiser, 3/1/99. p. A1.

(2) Honolulu Advertiser, 3/1/99. p. A8.

(3) Personal communication with Mr. Ted Sakai, 3/8/99.

(4) Governing Magazine, February issue, available at:

(5) Personal communication with Mr. Sakai, who says that while it is impossible to pin down exactly, $100-$120 per day would be a reasonable estimate. 3/8/99.

(6) Corrections USA News. 3/6/99. The following is an excerpt from the newsletter that is available in full at:


On January 29, 1999 at the Institute of Criminal Justice's seminar on Prison Privatization sponsored by the University of Minnesota School of Law in Minneapolis Minnesota, Mr. Roosevelt Littlejohn, Jr., President of the National Professional Corrections Employees Union (NPCEU) announced that his organization has joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the AFL-CIO.

Local 1 of the NPCEU represents private guards at CCA's Washington, DC facility. The only union representing "guards" in CCA prisons, (AFSCME another AFL-CIO affiliate currently represents non-security personnel within certain CCA prisons). Mr. Littlejohn made this public proclamation during his presentation on Labor Issues in Private Prisons.

He stated that after 2 years of negotiations his union had finally reached their first contractual agreement with CCA. The sticking point according to Littlejohn was the no strike clause which to his credit they were unwilling to give up. SEIU and the AFL-CIO told Littlejohn that his organization could join them and agree to the no strike clause. They reassured him that SEIU and the AFL-CIO would provide all the support he needed in the event of labor unrest, including sending in picketers so that the "guards" could go to work and not violate their contract.

The AFL-CIO has invested 10 million dollars in CCA stock and has now agreed to allow private guards to affiliate with them by joining SEIU. SEIU also represents public correctional officers in Michigan through the Michigan Corrections Organization. Mr. Littlejohn stated that he will now be organizing private guards across the country under the SEIU AFL-CIO banner."