Woodrow Wilson was in the midst of securing his second term as president, the Chicago Cubs played their first game on what would become Wrigley Field and Hawaii was still 53 years away from statehood when the Oahu Prison was built in Kalihi in 1916.

The facility was expanded several decades ago into its current state, the Oahu Community Correctional Center, but some facilities at the site have been in use for more than 80 years. To say the overcrowded prison, which holds about twice as many inmates as it was designed to house, is outdated may stretch that adjective to its limit. Hawaii governors have been struggling for years to replace or move the facility, to no avail.

But the idea outlined by Gov. David Ige on Monday in Civil Beat is perhaps the most intriguing and cost-effective to date — one that could resolve an expensive longstanding dilemma. As  Rui Kaneya reported, Ige and state Director of Public Safety Nolan Espinda are exploring a potential partnership in which a private prison company would build a new prison next to the Halawa Correctional Facility, shoulder its upfront costs, and then lease it back to the state. Because the proposed facility would be built with ostensibly a more modern design, it would require significantly less staff than the 19 outdated modules that comprise the OCCC, saving money that could help to cover the facility’s lease.

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A prison guard at the edge of the overcrowded and outdated Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi.

Hawaii Department of Public Safety

The potential finances of the proposal are such that Hawaii could get a new prison, built to a size appropriate for the OCCC’s current bloated population, with no new budgetary outlay, Ige says. Those efficiencies might be useful not only at that facility, but in freeing up state budget capacity to address other needs in the state’s horribly overcrowded system of four prisons and four jails, which are collectively more than 60 percent over capacity.

Ige agreed to release $5 million in long-appropriated funds back in the spring for planning and proposals on how to either move or address the needs of the aged OCCC. Around the same time, he described state prison facilities as crumbling and antiquated in a Civil Beat editorial board, noting that virtually every bed is triple booked.

In Monday’s story, he estimated the total cost of replacement or refurbishment of all the state’s prisons and jails at $1.5 billion to $2 billion — a nearly insurmountable sum for a state with deep deferred maintenance needs throughout the islands, particularly in its public schools. The new plan would allow him to replace the state’s largest single corrections facility, as well as its oldest, without investing resources needed just as much elsewhere.

It’s just an idea at this stage, without a private prison partner, a timetable or approvals. But the dynamics around the latter potentially make the deal more attractive: Because the Legislature wouldn’t have to approve construction funds, the plan could simply be approved by the State Procurement Office, allowing the Ige administration to solicit bids from potential private prison partners and get moving.

“In a typical situation with construction, we would have to have all the funds appropriated before we can advertise for bids and get proposals back,” Ige said. “But, if we’re going to pay essentially a daily rate for (leasing) the new facility, then it rolls into our operating budget hopefully, and there would be no new appropriation required. So the current budget may be adequate enough to pay for the facility with (an increased) efficiency in operations.”

Failing to tend to our criminal justice needs on island further stresses families and communities caught in the web of the prison system, ultimately increasing costs to taxpayers and damaging Hawaii’s social fabric.

But potential budget savings on new construction and staffing efficiencies aren’t the only reasons we believe Ige’s idea deserves exploration. As Kaneya reported, nearly one-fourth of Hawaii’s 5,669 prisoners are serving sentences in Arizona in a facility operated by the Corrections Corporation of America.

Hawaii hasn’t had sufficient prisons to fully house its prison population on island for years. After being sued by the ACLU over prison overcrowding and safety issues in 1984 and entering into a federally overseen consent decree to deal with those issues the following year, the state finally began transferring inmates in 1995 to facilities in Texas, Minnesota and Oklahoma, and later, Arizona.

While an adequate arrangement for the state, such outsourcing to the mainland causes significant other problems. Robert Merce of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. points to multiple studies, for instance, that show inmates who have no regular visitation from family members or friends — visitation that incarceration in Arizona largely prevents — have a recidivism rate about 13 percent higher than inmates who do. Likewise, children of incarcerated fathers or mothers who have no contact with their parents face a host of issues, ranging from poor academic performance at school to behavioral problems.

Failing to tend to our criminal justice needs on island further stresses families and communities caught in the web of the prison system, ultimately increasing costs to taxpayers and damaging Hawaii’s social fabric.

Having been allowed to accumulate over generations, our state’s prison issues are complex and won’t be solved with any single proposal. Ige’s idea is at least aimed in the right direction — replacing a terribly dated facility with a new prison on Oahu — and thus deserves the full attention of the State Procurement Office as soon as he puts it forward.

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