2016 Topical Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

Hawaii Behind Bars


About the Project

Hawaii’s prisons are so overcrowded that, for more than 20 years, the state has been housing more than 1,400 of its inmates at a time at a private prison in Arizona. Even so, the four prisons in Hawaii are far above capacity.

But both to the public, and to other news media in this state, the prisoners are out of sight, out of mind. Prior to Rui beginning his series, Hawaii Behind Bars, no other news media in this state had done any more than minor news coverage about the state’s aging and inadequate prisons, their overcrowding, the mistreatment of prisoners, or the routine practice of sending hundreds of inmates more than 3,000 miles away to a private prison that receives very little state oversight.

Rui’s reporting revealed medical care so inadequate that what should have been a routine, easily treatable infection led to one inmate losing all his fingers and both legs. He examined how the state squanders millions locking up hundreds of low-level drug offenders who would be in halfway houses, receiving treatment, in other states.

He delved into how Hawaii lawmakers and the state’s Department of Public Safety have failed to adequately oversee a private-prison contract in Eloy, Arizona — even as Hawaiian inmates at the Saguaro Correctional Center have been murdered and subjected to abuse.

To do this reporting, Rui fought for months to overcome stiff resistance by the state to public-records requests. Hawaii is notable for having one of the weakest public-records laws in the country, riddled with absurd exception, including one that allows officials to withhold records when they feel that releasing them might “frustrate a legitimate government function.”

Nevertheless, with the help of a media attorney, Brian Black, Rui gained access to hundreds of previously undisclosed documents including contracts, financial records, inspection reports and more.

The result has been an unprecedented look into the inadequacies and failings of an underfunded and poorly administered prison system.

Rui’s reporting helped lead to legislation introduced in the 2016 session of the Hawaii Legislature to revise the statutes aimed at incarcerating even low-level drug offenders in prison. He also raised grave questions about the state’s flawed private-prison contracting practices. His work continues.