Gov. David Ige is about to tackle an issue that’s been 100 years in the making.

In his State of the State address slated for Monday, the governor is expected to unveil his plans for what to do with the Oahu Community Correctional Center, the oldest jail in Hawaii.

It’s no secret that OCCC, originally built in 1916, is falling apart. Its infrastructure is crumbling, and overcrowding is endemic there — at the end of December, 1,155 inmates were crammed into space designed to house 628.

No wonder then that a consensus has emerged in recent years: OCCC has outlived its usefulness, and its relocation is all but inevitable.

Last year, the Legislature went so far as to adopt a resolution calling on the governor to relocate OCCC out of its current campus, which sits in the middle of a bustling Kalihi neighborhood, just west of downtown Honolulu.

State lawmakers noted that refurbishing OCCC’s existing structures could be “equally or more expensive than building a new facility,” and that it makes more fiscal sense to relocate it next to the Halawa Correctional Facility.

So far, Ige has kept the details of his plans close to his chest, but he’s widely expected to go along with the lawmakers’ wishes by proposing to move OCCC to the largely industrial, state-owned land in Halawa.

But whether the governor’s plan can win the necessary support will likely depend on how he proposes to finance the jail.

Oahu Community Correctional Center. 18 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Originally built in 1916, the Oahu Community Correctional Center has 19 modules — an antiquated design that requires more correctional officers than in more modern facilities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Paying For A New Jail

In all likelihood, Ige will look for ways to build a new OCCC without a large upfront need for capital improvement funds.

In an interview with Civil Beat last year, Ige estimated that the price tag for construction could run anywhere between $150 million to $250 million.

Given that the state has only about $400 million a year in capital improvement funds, Ige knows that’s a nonstarter.

“When you look at all of the needs for the government facilities, the challenge is: Where do prison and jail facilities fall in that spectrum?” Ige said. “We know that, when compared to the needs for public schools and university and all of the other state facilities, finding construction dollars to support prisons is hard to come by.”

This is why House Bill 840 and Senate Bill 1268 — two measures that sought to fund the relocation to Halawa — languished in the money committees last year.

To get around this dilemma, Ige said he would be banking on a public-private partnership, in which a for-profit prison company absorbs the upfront construction cost and leases the jail back to the state to operate it.

Ige is betting that, with this arrangement, the jail could eventually pay for itself.

That’s based on a calculation that the cost savings can come from reduced staffing needs for operating a more modern facility.

Nolan Espinda, the director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, says that OCCC’s design — made up of 19 modules — is so antiquated that it requires 100 more correctional officers to hold roughly the same number of inmates as in Halawa, which has seven modules.

“Wherever you have inmates segregated, you need staff dedicated to that particular area. At Halawa, inmates are housed in the blocks of 124 inmates. At OCCC, the blocks are made up of as few as 24 inmates,” Espinda said. “The Halawa design is circa 1987, but it’s dramatically better in regards to the lines of supervision, the amount of people they can supervise in specific areas, than at OCCC.”

Ige said he’s been working with the State Procurement Office to see if the relocation can move forward using the cost savings.

“In the past, the procurement office has basically said that we’ve got to come up with an explicit funding mechanism in order for us to proceed forward. So we just want to be clear about what the requirements are, whether we have to actually have an appropriation to proceed,” Ige said. “If the total cost ends up not being significantly different with the labor savings than what the current operations are, is that satisfactory or not? Once we get the clarity on that, then we’ll initiate the process.”

Oahu Community Correctional Center. 18 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Oahu Community Correctional Center is notorious for overcrowding. Most of its cells are double-banked. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Saving Money With Fewer Guards

Ige emphasized that he’ll achieve the cost savings through attrition. “I just need to make it clear that we’re not talking about laying anybody off,” he said.

But Ige’s plan will likely come under close scrutiny by the United Public Workers, the union that represents correctional officers.

Last year, HB 840 was opposed by UPW, which voiced concerns over the relocation’s impact on the employees.

“The planning and construction of a new community correctional facility will ultimately require personnel to operate the new system under working conditions that could be different than existing ones,” Dayton Nakanelua, UPW’s state director, wrote in his testimony.

Nakanelua did not respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment.

Others object to the idea of building a new OCCC on more philosophical grounds.

“They want to build all these new facilities in Hawaii, but what we have to do is reduce sentencing,” said Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, a nonprofit pushing for criminal justice reform in Hawaii. “We have people in prison who do not belong there. We have got to get past the idea that imprisoning our social problems is the solution. Why don’t we develop solutions to address these problems instead of hiding them away in prisons or warehouses so we don’t have to see them?”

The jail sits on land that the city is eyeing for rail development.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center sits near the land that the city is eyeing for rail development. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But the push to relocate OCCC will likely keep gaining momentum, given that it sits on a piece of real estate that’s coveted for its proximity to the route of the Honolulu rail project.

At the Capitol last week, Espinda told members of the House and Senate money committees that the Legislature’s support and “the choo-choo train coming through Kalihi” are providing “a tidal wave for us to ride” to make the relocation happen.

“I hope we don’t fall down as we try to catch it,” Espinda said.

State Rep. Gregg Takayama, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, says he sees potential development opportunities once OCCC moves out.

“It’s a valuable land,” Takayama said. “We should listen to residents of the Kalihi community — who had to endure the presence of OCCC for many, many years — and see what they think we should do with the property. But I think it would be a good idea to lease the land to a developer and see what could be done with it.”

For his part, Ige told Civil Beat that OCCC’s relocation could serve as a model for how to fix the state’s other facilities.

“As we get experience with the public-private partnership and how that needs to get structured, we can get real data on efficiencies and staffing, and that allows us to proceed on the other facilities with more confidence,” Ige said. “So this (new) facility is a key enabler for us to do anything on any front.”

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