By Sophie Cocke; Honolulu Advertiser; September 21, 2016
As the state moves forward on a legislative directive to find a new location for Oahu’s severely overcrowded jail in Kalihi, the director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety says officials should be taking the long view and considering options that could also allow the state to bring home all of its inmates incarcerated on the mainland.
Architects Hawaii has begun reviewing new locations for the Oahu Community Correctional Center, which houses about 1,200 inmates, under a $5 million contract it was awarded by the state this year.
While the Honolulu firm is focused on developing a new jail, DPS Director Nolan Espinda said during a meeting Monday with the state Corrections Population Management Commission that the process may lend itself to developing a new prison instead.
“If a very good outward location is outside the general Honolulu area, for example, and therefore very difficult to traverse back and forth between Circuit and District Court, the possibility on a wider scope of replacing a prison instead, and utilizing Halawa Correctional Facility as the jail, opens itself up for consideration,” Espinda said during the meeting.
Under this scenario, jail inmates housed at OCCC would be moved into Halawa Correctional Facility, one of the state’s four prisons, which is close enough to downtown for pretrial jail inmates to easily make court appearances in downtown Honolulu.
The Halawa prisoners would be moved to a new prison that is big enough to also accommodate the approximately 1,400 inmates who are housed at Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona under a contract with the Corrections Corp. of America.
Hawaii’s jails mainly hold pretrial and short-term inmates convicted of misdemeanors, as well as felons who are in the midst of returning back to the community, while prisons hold inmates with longer sentences.
The Ige administration had initially proposed legislation this year that would have relocated OCCC to the grounds of the Halawa prison under an expedited process meant, in part, to take advantage of the site’s existing infrastructure. The administration was asking the Legislature to approve the release of $489.3 million in general obligation bonds for the project for use by developers.
But the Legislature slowed the project down, instead instructing the administration to report back before the start of the upcoming legislative session on other potential locations for OCCC and expected costs.
Espinda said that given the broader mandate, it made sense to consider all options.
“So with the wider scope of areas we need to look at and possible site locations, it also adds in the possibility of thinking on a broader scope in regards to how we want to get to resolving not only this singular problem facing OCCC, but potentially a larger and more challenging problem regarding the whole prison population in the state of Hawaii,” said Espinda.
After the meeting, Espinda told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the Legislature didn’t specify “replacement of OCCC with a brand-new OCCC.”
“What it says is ‘replacement of OCCC.’ So without legislation that identifies Halawa Correctional Facility as the lone site, I think it is prudent for everyone to be looking at all alternatives to resolving the problem of relocating OCCC, and that could entail other things,” he said.
Officials with Architects Hawaii voiced skepticism about the proposal following the meeting, however, noting that their contract with the state is specific to developing a new jail.
As part of the contract, the company is expected to assist with evaluating alternative locations and their costs, initiating the environmental impact statement process, conducting public outreach and developing conceptual site development plans.
That, in part, involves developing an inventory of specific site locations based on the space and infrastructure requirements of a new jail.
The company has also scheduled a public meeting Sept. 28 at Farrington High School at 6 p.m. to hear from the community about possible new locations for OCCC. The meeting is part of the environmental review process.
Rep. Gregg Takayama, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, who also attended the Monday meeting, said Espinda’s idea of building a whole new prison and transferring OCCC jail inmates to Halawa “piqued his curiosity.”
“Certainly, I think we should all be open to possibilities like that,” he said, though he added that the chance of it happening may be remote.
Takayama noted that the Ige administration’s final report due to the Legislature on suggested site locations for OCCC is still very preliminary.
“The report to the Legislature is purely a recommendation — it is not something that is a done deal,” he said.
Takayama noted that the governor and Legislature could take the report at face value, reject it or use only part of it. “It’s very early in the process,” he said.
While Ige had initially hoped to speed up the process of relocating OCCC to the grounds of the Halawa prison, officials said during the Monday meeting that completion of the project is now probably 10 years out.
OCCC, like all of the state’s jails, is severely overcrowded. Jail inmates throughout the counties are triple- and quadruple-celled. Espinda said earlier this year that that means every jail “has people sleeping on the floor with their head next to the toilet every day.”
Hawaii began shipping inmates to prisons on the mainland two decades ago in what was expected to be a temporary measure to save money and relieve overcrowding at state prisons. But there haven’t been any serious plans recently to try to bring the prisoners back.
Meanwhile, political pressure has mounted nationally to shut down the private prison industry. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it planned to end its use of private prisons, saying they don’t provide the same levels of services and security as those run by the government.
Hillary Clinton has also called for ending the privatization of prisons as part of her presidential campaign platform. Her campaign has declined contributions from federal lobbyists or PACs representing the private prison industry.
“We must not create private industry incentives that may contribute — or have the appearance of contributing — to over-incarceration,” according to Clinton’s platform.
Espinda said the national debate around private prisons hasn’t been a factor for him in looking at the possibility of bringing Hawaii’s mainland prisoners home.
“We cannot afford not to deal with a private vendor at this time,” he said. “In the future, given better opportunities, we obviously would like to have all of our prisoners in the state under state jurisdiction.”