Get ready for sticker shock.

Under new legislation introduced by Gov. David Ige, the price tag for building a new jail to replace the crumbling Oahu Community Correctional Center could reach nearly a half-billion dollars.

Nolan Espinda, the director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, told members of the House and Senate public safety committees Thursday that the Ige administration is looking at a number of possible arrangements to finance OCCC’s relocation to Halawa Valley.

One scenario spelled out in the governor’s two companion bills, House Bill 2388 and Senate Bill 2917, would be to sell general obligation bonds in excess of $489 million.

Espinda said the department is working on issuing a request for proposals to explore other possibilities, including a lease-back arrangement with a for-profit prison company that could bring down the cost significantly.

“What we hope, of course, is that we’re going to bring in multiple bidders with new and proven ideas that we can entertain, review and hopefully enter into an agreement,” Espinda said.

Oahu Community Correctional Center mirrors around prison guards to watch inmates. 18 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Oahu Community Correctional Center is so overcrowded that its cells are usually double-bunked. Sometimes, three inmates are crammed inside a cell, with the third inmate taking a spot on the floor to sleep. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ige has made OCCC’s relocation among his top priorities for this year.

“One of the harshest realities facing us today is that we need to tear down (OCCC) in Kalihi and build a new facility in Halawa,” Ige said in his State of the State address Monday. “The jail is severely overcrowded and in disrepair, and we must take action.”

To fast-track his plan, Ige’s two bills — “the enabling legislation,” as Espinda calls them — would give his administration the freedom to seek out the most cost-effective arrangement.

Ige’s interim plan is to build a jail capable of holding 1,000 male inmates on vacant state land next to the Halawa Correctional Facility to meet the current need of OCCC.

At the end of December, 1,155 inmates, including about 150 women, were crammed into space designed to house 628.

Under the plan, the Laumaka Work Furlough Center, which is located across the street from OCCC’s main campus, would remain in its current site to keep work furlough participants close to transportation and their jobs, Espinda said.

Wes Machida, the governor’s finance director, told the lawmakers that the state would be on the hook for $40 million in annual payments for 20 years if it were to sell $489 million in bonds, and the amount of interest paid would reach about $300 million by the end.

Espinda said no new revenue stream has been identified to facilitate the payments, other than the proceeds that could come from leasing or selling the 16 acres of state land in Kalihi once OCCC moves out.

But the cost efficiencies could come from operating a more modern facility, Espinda added. “Our estimates are that … there could be as much as a 20 percent reduction in the staffing needs, based on … efficiency and security design,” he said.

Dept of Safety Director Nolan Espinda. 29 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Nolan Espinda, the director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, says the Oahu Community Correctional Center’s relocation could be completed within five to seven years under Gov. David Ige’s plan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Under Ige’s proposal, the state would be exempted from conducting a new environmental impact assessment, so long as it proceeds as planned to build a replacement facility at Halawa.

Douglas Murdock, the director of the Hawaii Department of Accounting and General Services, said the exemption could shave off about one year from the planning process.

“We’re looking for any way to make the schedule go faster, so that we can get to the building as quickly as possible,” Murdock said.

With the exemption, the construction could be completed in five to seven years, Espinda said.

But the idea was met with some skepticism.

State Rep. Romy Cachola urged the officials to engage environmental advocates to gauge their views on the exemption. “You should check first to see whether or not they’re going to challenge it,” Cachola said.

State Rep. Gregg Takayama, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, pointed out that it’s one thing to ask for exemptions if the plan is to build a jail within the footprint of the existing Halawa prison. But it’s quite another if the plan is for it to be built “adjacent” to it — as the governor’s bills call for.

The latter would be “harder to justify in terms of exempting yourselves from” environmental review process, Takayama told the officials.

During a separate hearing, DeMont Conner, a former Halawa inmate, told members of the Senate Public Safety Committee that he’s concerned about the potential for adverse health effects from building a jail so close to the site of fuel leaks from the U.S. Navy’s underground storage tanks in Red Hill.

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, echoed the need for environmental review process and urged the lawmakers to make sure that the feasibility study on OCCC’s relocation would look into alternatives to incarceration, as well.

“Around the country, and around the world, there’s a revolution taking place,” Brady said. “People are looking at the criminal justice (system) and saying, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t just lock up all these people.'”

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