Hawaii’s prisons are crumbling under the weight of overcrowding and neglect.

The newest facility — Halawa Correctional Center in Central Oahu — is more than 20 years old and bursting at the seams.

More than 1,100 inmates call Halawa home even though the facility was initially designed to house about 600. Officials say the prison can function at its current population level, but it’s a struggle.

Other facilities are worse off.

At the Oahu Community Correctional Center — the state’s largest jail — some cells are the size of closets, paint hides rusted bars, and inmates who should be held in isolation are double-bunked.

State officials realize it’s time for an update, but what’s being proposed is a major overhaul.

The state wants to build new prisons or jails in all four counties. The cost is estimated from $500 million to $1 billion, although some say it will likely be much more than that.

State officials hope that once the work is complete Hawaii will be able to incarcerate more than 6,000 inmates on the islands. Now the state’s jails and prisons can only hold about half that number.

The proposed building boom would create a surplus of prison beds, but it would also allow the state to bring back about 1,400 Hawaii inmates held in a privately run facility in Saguaro, Ariz. New prisons in Hawaii would allow the state to end its multimillion contract with the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the Arizona facility.

Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai says there’s no timeline for renovation, but he’s hoping for some guidance from Gov. Neil Abercrombie in the coming months for how to proceed.

“We’re overcrowded, our facilities are old and they’re poorly designed,” Sakai said. “This is a problem that’s been pushed back for decades now. … We’ve never really approached this issue in a real comprehensive way. We’ve made efforts, but they all got stalled. Nothing has been built for years.”

Who’s Who?

In November, the Department of Public Safety put out a request for information that outlined the state’s overcrowding problem and detailed how it wanted to expand its prison system.

The state wanted prospective builders to pitch ideas for building new jails on Kauai, the Big Island and Oahu as well as an expansion of the correctional facilities on Maui. In all, the state is looking to build 4,425 new beds.

The request for information also made clear all facilities would be operated by the state, although officials would entertain possible public-private partnerships for financing in addition to land swaps.

Such an ambitious plan attracted some of the biggest names in corrections, including CCA, CGL Companies and GEO Group.

Other major companies, such as Molasky Group, HDR Engineering and AECOM, also expressed interest.

Additional respondents included anti-incarceration advocates Kat Brady, of the Community Alliance on Prisons, and Loreen Walker, of the Hawaii Friends of Justice & Civic Education.

Together Brady and Walker submitted a 13-page critique of the state’s plan to expand its prison system on the islands.

Among other things, they said officials should focus on reintegration efforts to cut down on recidivism and reduce prison populations.

They also want the state to sever ties with CCA. The company has been sued a number of times for the deaths of Hawaii inmates at its mainland facilities as well as been the subject of a scathing audit that was critical of the Department of Public Safety’s procurement practices.

Brady is particularly worried about the state setting its baseline inmate population at 6,000 even though Abercrombie has said he wants to reduce the prison population through the state’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

That program in part seeks to save the state money by putting more funds toward treatment programs and parole and probation to help keep people from being locked up.

By expanding the state’s bed space, Brady believes Hawaii will continue to have an incentive to keep inmates incarcerated.

“If you build it, you’ll fill it,” Brady said. “These kinds of prisons are things of the past. Hawaii is trying to invest in 19th century technology and I don’t understand why they’re doing it.”

She does concede something needs to be done, however, saying the state’s prison facilities are in “Third-World shape.”

Enough Political Will?

While most can agree that many of the state’s correctional facilities are in deplorable condition, a fix won’t come easy.

In February, Sakai gave a presentation to state lawmakers that laid out the various options CCA, GEO, Molasky and others submitted in response to the request for information.

It became clear quickly that more is needed than just money. A great deal of political will is also required.

Sen. Will Espero, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, realizes that refurbishing the state’s prisons will be difficult.

He estimates it could take decades for the state to build all the facilities needed to reduce its overcrowding problem unless there’s a public-private partnership that can act as a catalyst.

“We need to come up with a plan to build and improve our facilities,” Espero said. “(But) at the end of the day the question is how are we going to finance these projects?”

Espero introduced Senate Bill 2309 this session to allow the state to issue bonds to build a re-entry facility for criminal offenders. The bill passed the Senate and is now waiting committee hearings in the House.

But he noted that responsibility for moving forward with the prison rebuilding plan ultimately resides with Abercrombie. That can be politically unpopular, especially when weighed against other priorities.

“These projects sometimes take a back seat to schools, universities and other things,” Espero said. “That’s probably why some of these facilities are in the state they are today.”

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