In Public Safety

By Kevin Dayton; Star Advertiser; January 22, 2017

More than 13 years ago, the state mapped out an ambitious 10-year plan for the Hawaii prison system that included almost $1 billion in construction. That master plan called for new jails on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and in Kona, and a major expansion of the state’s largest prison at Halawa.

None of those major prison or jail projects ever happened. The official “10-Year Corrections Master Plan Update” was never implemented, and this year prison officials are back at the state Legislature asking lawmakers for $1 million to update the 2003 plan.

Despite chronic overcrowding in the correctional system, the state hasn’t built and opened a new prison or jail in Hawaii since 1987, although prison officials have spent tens of millions of dollars trying.

For example, the state has spent nearly $14 million since 2004 on planning efforts for a new Maui jail at a proposed site in Puunene, and has contracted for another $5 million for planning and design of a new Oahu jail that would replace the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Corrections officials are still trying to advance both of those projects.

In the meantime, overcrowding at Hawaii’s jails and prisons has become so severe the American Civil Liberties Union alleges it amounts to unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment.” The ACLU is calling for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The state also holds about 1,400 inmates in a privately run prison in Arizona because there is no room for them in Hawaii correctional facilities. The state began exporting convicts to mainland prisons in the 1990s as a way to reduce overcrowding, and the arrangement now costs the state nearly $50 million a year.

State Director of Public Safety Nolan Espinda said master plans such as the 2003 document produced by Carter Goble Associates Inc. don’t take into account resistance the department may face for “failing to include interested parties.”

“There’s just a lot of second-guessing that occurs,” Espinda said.

There are also competing demands for limited public construction money, notably from the state Department of Education.

Another factor that can stall corrections projects is that residents often don’t want prisons and jails built near their homes or businesses. Espinda describes that as “the not-in-my-backyard argument that I have faced for 33 years in corrections.”

Changing circumstances and changing priorities of political leaders at the state Capitol also play a part, he said.

“We see it from session to session, changing focus points, often which start with highlighted problems of the moment, occur regularly,” he said. The state may have a better chance of sticking to the new master plan and actually implementing it if lawmakers adopt the new plan as law, he said.

Among the largest prison projects the state is now pursuing is the effort to build a new jail to replace OCCC, which will cost an estimated $643 million, and a $45 million plan to add bed space at the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua.

Plans to double the capacity of WCCC and replace OCCC were included in the 2003 prison master plan but never carried out. Espinda this year is asking lawmakers for $9 million to plan and design the WCCC project, but there is still uncertainty about the OCCC proposal.

State consultant Architects Hawaii has been soliciting community input for the OCCC plan, and identified 11 potential sites for a new facility that would replace the Kalihi jail. Lawmakers expect a report on Feb. 1 with a short list of preferred sites, and the best three or four of those locations will undergo further study in an environmental impact statement, Espinda said.

But House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke complained to Espinda earlier this month that the consultant has not been listening to lawmakers’ suggestions for the planned new jail.

For example, House Public Safety Committee Chairman Gregg Takayama said the search has been limited to sites that are 20 acres or larger, when Takayama said the state should also look at smaller sites where a high-rise jail might be built.

“To me, it seems it eliminates a lot of potential sites,” Takayama told the committee. He suggested the department might want to look at land next to the Federal Detention Center near Honolulu airport.

Luke said she told the consultant that the correctional system needs to address overcrowding by working with prosecutors and the judiciary to reduce the number of homeless and poor people who are stuck in Hawaii jails because they cannot pay their bail. If the state does that, then “there is no overcrowding,” Luke said.

However, she said the consultant ignored her, and Luke reminded Espinda at a recent hearing that he must win the approval of her committee and other lawmakers to build a replacement for OCCC.

“So, just kind of take a wild guess, what do you think is going to happen to your request if the consultants that you hire pretty much ignore (other lawmakers) … and ignore everything that I said, and you just come up with the original assessment of what you wanted to do?” Luke asked Espinda. “So, take a guess.”

Last week Takayama added to the uncertainty by proposing an entirely new approach.

Takayama is now suggesting the state build a 2,500-bed prison on state land near the Waiawa Correctional Facility in Central Oahu. The state could then convert Halawa Correctional Facility into a jail to replace OCCC, and the new prison would provide enough new bed space to return nearly 1,400 Hawaii inmates now housed on the mainland.

Espinda floated a similar proposal last September, although he did not mention Waiawa specifically. However, dramatically changing the larger jail plan casts doubt on the current planning effort under the $5.3 million contract with Architects Hawaii.

Espinda said that if lawmakers change direction and adopt Takayama’s idea for replacing OCCC, the state can always stop work and spending under the contract with Architects Hawaii.

State Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, said Takayama’s idea “is news to me,” adding, “I think it’s discussions that we all need to have because I think at some point, they would like to bring back the inmates that are currently housed in Arizona, because that is a cost to the state.”

There are others who don’t consider prison and jail construction the answer to the problems in Hawaii’s correctional system.

Mateo Caballero, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii, said the state must immediately address prison and jail overcrowding, but “newer and bigger facilities are not necessarily a long-term solution … Instead, the state needs to address the root cause of overcrowding, which is overincarceration.”

“As we debate the plans for OCCC and make a new master plan, with hundreds of millions of dollars to be invested down the line, we should be thinking about comprehensively reforming the failed policies that got us here in the first place — policies like tackling the complex issue of homelessness with the blunt tools of criminalization and incarceration,” Caballero said in a written statement.

For example, Caballero pointed to an effort in New Jersey to shift to a bail system based on a prisoner’s risk of fleeing, rather than on the prisoner’s ability to put up a sum of cash.

“This move ensures that poor people do not end up in jail simply because they cannot afford bail. It is these types of reforms — and not simply updating a master plan or building larger jails — that ultimately will address the problem of overcrowding in Hawaii,” Caballero said.

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