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Gov. David Ige won’t be bringing back Hawaii prisoners from the mainland anytime soon.
In fact, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety is planning to send hundreds of more inmates to a for-profit prison in Arizona starting next year — albeit on a temporary basis — to make room for facility upgrades at the Halawa Correctional Facility.
More than 1,300 Hawaii prisoners are now serving their sentences at the Saguaro Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Eloy, Arizona, operated by Corrections Corporation of America. They make up nearly a quarter of the state’s 5,669 total inmates housed in 10 prisons and jails, as of June 29.
In an interview with Civil Beat last week, Ige said Hawaii’s prisons and jails are in bad shape.
“I do believe that it’s better for our community to return the prisoners,” Ige said. “But I’m pretty pragmatic at the same time. Quite frankly, we don’t have any place to put them. Until we can move forward with (building a new) facility, any discussion of bringing them home is premature.”
Ige said the price tag for wholesale replacement or refurbishment of all of the state’s prisons and jails would be prohibitive: $1.5 billion to $2 billion.
“Quite frankly, we don’t have any place to put them.” — Gov. David Ige, referring to Hawaii inmates imprisoned in Arizona
Still, Ige said he’s committed to getting started with a plan to build a replacement facility for the Oahu Community Correctional Center, a nearly century-old jail in Kalihi that’s chronically overcrowded.
“The current status of our facilities limits our options today, so we need to do something,” Ige said.
Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, said the department will have to make do with the current arrangement for the time being.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that we have to use this Arizona prison, but it does allow us to maintain a professional level of services for that prison population,” Espinda told Civil Beat.
Ige said the immediate need is to address the fact that the existing facilities in Hawaii — four prisons and four jails — are being used at a level far exceeding their capacity.
Collectively, they are designed to hold 2,491 inmates, but more than 4,100 inmates are now housed at the facilities.
The problem is particularly acute at OCCC, which was built in 1916. As of June 29, the jail held 1,247 inmates, even though it was designed for a population half that size.
That’s why Ige is pushing ahead with a plan to replace it with what he hopes will be a new jail adjacent to Halawa on the largely industrial land owned by the state.
To pay for it, Ige said he’ll be relying on two things.
For one thing, he said, the new jail would make it possible to sharply reduce staffing, leading to lower operating expenses.
Espinda explained that the labor cost savings is possible because of OCCC’s outdated design. It’s made up of 19 modules, each of which has to be guarded by a separate team of correctional officers. By contrast, the medium-security wing at Halawa, which is the state’s newest, has only four modules.
It takes 100 more correctional officers at OCCC to guard the same number of inmates as at Halawa, Espinda said.
Ige said the resulting savings could be significant — possibly enough to pay incrementally for the cost of building a new jail.
And, to keep the cost at the minimum, Ige said he’s also looking at a partnership with a for-profit prison company that can absorb the upfront cost of building the jail, which would then be leased to the state to operate.
In that scenario, the jail wouldn’t require the Legislature to appropriate the construction funds.
“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.”
Ige wouldn’t estimate when the state might move forward with bids from for-profit contractors, saying that the State Procurement Office would have to sign off on the arrangement first.
In the meantime, Espinda is overseeing the process of making upgrades on electronics and locking mechanisms at Halawa’s medium-security wing.
The contract for the upgrades is yet to be awarded — bidding is open until Aug. 20 — but the work is expected to start in October 2016. When it does, 248 inmates — enough to empty one of four modules — will have to be transferred to Arizona, Espinda said.
At Ige’s request, the Legislature has set aside nearly $6 million for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 for the transfer.
Ige’s predecessor, Neil Abercrombie, was a former probation officer who said bringing back Hawaii prisoners was one of his top priorities.
“It is dysfunctional to send people out of the state. It costs money. It costs lives. It costs communities. It destroys families. It is dysfunctional all the way around — socially, economically, politically and morally,” Abercrombie told reporters in December 2010.
Abercrombie’s stance was in part a reaction to a flurry of incidents at Saguaro and the Red Rock Correctional Center, another Arizona prison operated by CCA. A few months before he took office, the state’s public safety team was dispatched to Arizona to investigate CCA’s operations after the deaths of Hawaii inmates.
At the heart of Abercrombie’s strategy was the notion of reducing the state’s inmate population through crime prevention and offender rehabilitation under a program called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
But Abercrombie managed to achieve only a modest reduction in the number of prisoners housed in Arizona during his tenure — from 1,940 on June 30, 2010, to 1,611 on June 30, 2014.
Espinda said the program has limitations.
“A simple changing of the programmatic methodology is not going to make 1,300 bed spaces appear out of a clear blue sky,” Espinda said. “And a solution to our prison overcrowding situation is going to have to be an end result of a new prison somewhere.”
State Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said he’s still confident that the program can achieve greater results.
“I can see why they feel that there’s an urgent need to replace OCCC. I don’t disagree with that,” Espero said. “But, as a lawmaker deeply involved with the issue, I will work with my legislative colleagues to make certain that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is fully implemented. It has not done as well as we wanted it to, but it has certainly opened our eyes and given us the direction to go to. Down the road, I’m sure we’ll be able to see some successes.”
For her part, Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, said building more prisons isn’t the answer.
“They’re spending (the money) to build capacity — without thinking about who’s in prison,” Brady said. “What we have to do is reduce sentencing. We have people in prison who do not need to be there. An unintended consequence is that we’re creating a criminal underclass.”