When the Hawaii Justice Coalition, a fledgling group of prison-reform advocates, held a Jan. 3 workshop, the topic sounded pedestrian: how to submit useful comments to a state draft environmental impact statement.

Any other year, only a handful of people would have shown up.

But the event at the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu drew a packed house of about 70 reform-minded participants — from “progressive” retirees and community organizers to activists who describe themselves as “young democratic socialists.”

They were intent on making their voices heard concerning a draft environmental impact statement for building a replacement for the crumbling Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Carrie Ann Shirota, Hawaii Justice Coalition, prison reform

Carrie Ann Shirota, speaking at the Hawaii Justice Coalition workshop, said she wants to make sure the Legislature will have a meaningful debate over criminal justice reform in Hawaii.

Rui Kaneya/Civil Beat

The turnout illustrates the grass-roots energy building around criminal justice reform in Hawaii as legislators are about to consider two diverging visions of what a new OCCC should look like.

Consultants for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety have so far been operating on the assumption that the state will need to build a wholesale replacement of the existing facility — one that’s capable of housing more than 1,300 inmates.

But some reformers think the state should spend far less to construct a smaller facility — one that’s built from the ground up with a goal of rehabilitating inmates.

Sonny Ganaden, lead writer of a 2010 study that documented the overrepresentation of Native Hawaiians in prisons, says there’s a growing awareness in popular culture about the need for criminal justice reform.

Ganaden points to the success of films like “13th,” a 2016 documentary about mass incarceration that was nominated for the Academy Award, and “Out of State,” a 2017 documentary that chronicled the lives of Native Hawaiian prisoners housed at a for-profit prison in Arizona.

“People out in the community are talking about criminal justice reform,” Ganaden said. “I think this is the year that the tide finally changes.”

Carrie Ann Shirota, a lead organizer for the Hawaii Justice Coalition, says she plans to press legislators during that session that begins Wednesday to embrace the idea that the state needs a fundamental rethinking of the criminal justice system — a shift away from the get-tough, lock-’em-up approach to one that promotes rehabilitation and reduces recidivism.

“I think the philosophical debate over what our criminal justice system should look like is coming to a head,” Shirota said. “The community is seeking the alternatives (to incarceration). We’ll keep putting the public pressure on legislators, and they’ll have to address the issue soon.”

‘As Flexible As Possible’

In October, after nearly two years of looking for a suitable location, Gov. David Ige announced that the preferred site for building a new OCCC is on 25 acres of state land in Halawa Valley that now houses the Animal Quarantine Station.

Still undecided is what exactly the state will build on the site.

Consultants for the Department of Public Safety are recommending a facility that includes  two buildings — one with 1,044 beds to pretrial and convicted inmates; the other with 288 beds reserved for pre-release inmates “transitioning back into society.”

Their proposal has a steep price tag: an estimated $525 million, including $17.5 million to build a new animal quarantine facility just west of the current site.

Governor David Ige prison press conference announcing the Animal Quarantine location will be the future prison location.

In October, Gov. David Ige announced that the site of the Animal Quarantine Station is the preferred site for building a new Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In an informational briefing last week, Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, told members of the Senate money and public safety committees that the department won’t jump on the project right away.

Instead, Espinda said, the department is waiting for the environmental review process to be completed. In the meantime, he’s looking to use $1 million in capital improvement funds to explore the concept of a public-private partnership to finance the project.

Some lawmakers were concerned that the department is already ahead of itself. They noted that the Correctional Justice Task Force, which was created by the Legislature in 2016 to study effective incarceration policies, won’t complete its work until later this year.

In an interim report that was released in February, the task force called for a philosophical “paradigm shift” that involves building a much smaller jail, with most inmates diverted to community-based programs.

State Sen. Breene Harimoto told Espinda that he wanted to allow sufficient time for possible changes once the task force makes its recommendations.

“When the task force’s report comes out, hopefully … it’ll move us down the path of changing how we do business in the justice system,” Harimoto said. “So I’d just like an assurance that it’s not going to be too late to revise your plan, so that we don’t have to build an oversized jail.”

Espinda replied that the department will be “as flexible as possible.”

“We’re going to proceed very cautiously, assuring that everyone has the opportunity to provide all input necessary,” Espinda said. “We’re certainly not moving any faster than we need to or any faster than it’s called for.

“We don’t want to stop and wait, but we do want to consider anything that comes forward in regards to new ideas, changes in programming and changes in the judicial system.”

Too Soon To Commit

State Sen. Will Espero, who has long served on the Senate Public Safety Committee, says he and a number of his colleagues already lean against spending anything close to what the department has proposed to build a new OCCC.

That would be enough money, he said, to “build four new high schools, a dozen or 15 elementary schools, or a brand new university.”

Espero expects that the Legislature will be receptive to hearing other ideas.

“I think this session will probably be about looking at alternatives and options,” Espero said.

Gregg Takayama, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, says he’s prepared to hold a hearing once the task force releases its second interim report later this month.

“I do agree that there should be much more discussion on criminal justice reform,” Takayama said.

Originally built in 1916, the Oahu Community Correctional Center has been plagued by overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ganaden argues that, even without the task force report, Hawaii can move ahead with some reform measures that have been successful elsewhere.

He has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii to draft a bill that calls for “reforming, or even abolishing, the use of bail.”

According to Ganaden’s bill, a vast majority of OCCC inmates are charged with the lowest-level felony or misdemeanors, and bail reform would allow many of them to be safely released while awaiting trial.

“The bill takes the most obvious steps necessary for fundamentally changing the way bail operates, using lessons from successful jurisdictions,” Ganaden said.

But Takayama points out that the Legislature passed a resolution last year to create another task force to look into ways to improve pre-trial practices and procedures — including bail reform.

“I don’t think it’s ever too early to talk about such an important subject, but I don’t see the Legislature passing something in advance of receiving the task force’s report,” Takayama said.

Still, Takayama says it’s encouraging to see the grass-roots energy around criminal justice reform.

“I think the more people who are involved in the discussion of reform, the better,” Takayama said. “Reforming our criminal justice system isn’t the job of just a few parts of society — it takes the entire community to develop a meaningful reform.”

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