Forty years ago, Hawaii tried to re-envision and reform the state’s old and obsolete prison system. The aim: to create a prison system second to none.

The magazine of the American Correctional Association, an organization of prison professionals, reported that Hawaii’s new prisons were expected to be “the most modern, the most humane and the most sophisticated anywhere.”

But even as the new buildings were going up, the widely hailed vision was being undermined by bureaucratic inertia and infighting, and by the Legislature’s failure to fund key parts of the system.

And with a surge in crime brought about, in part, by the unprecedented size of the the baby boom generation, we saw the arrival of a new political era that leveraged the fear of crime into a potent campaign issue, first nationally and then locally.

Instead of leading the nation, Hawaii’s new prison system was overcrowded on the day it opened. The state has spent much of the past several decades struggling with chronic overcrowding and administrative woes, continuing allegations of civil rights violations, lawsuits, and repeated periods of direct federal supervision of several of its facilities.

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

Now a new era of prison building appears to be taking center stage. Gov. David Ige has proposed a plan to move the Oahu Correctional Center, a centerpiece of the 1970s plan, from its existing site in Kalihi to a new spot next to the high security prison in Halawa.

This initial move carries a staggering projected price tag of $485 million. And to make it happen, the governor is trying to eliminate the requirement for an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement for whatever is built at the Halawa site.

If a different site is eventually chosen, Ige wants to cut the time for the public to comment on the environmental review in half, to 30 days from the usual 60. Both moves could create dangerous precedents for other end runs around environmental regulation.

In his State of the State speech, Ige said he plans “a series of community meetings to let Kalihi speak about what Kalihi wants” for redevelopment of the OCCC site along Dillingham Boulevard and Puuhale Road. But there doesn’t appear to be any plan for meaningful transparency for the prison itself, or the shape and direction of the larger system of statewide correctional facilities.

At this juncture, it’s worth looking back at mistakes that prevented the state’s 1970s prison plan from becoming a reality.  There just might be some clues here about things to watch out for today.

The 1970s Master Plan

In the years after statehood, the old dilapidated Hawaii State Prison in Kalihi desperately needed to be replaced. The building itself was in disrepair, and the correctional system was a mishmash, with parts of the system run by the state, and others run by the counties or divided between different and competing state departments and agencies. Each county ran its own jail, while the prison was operated by the state. The system was small, but administratively unwieldy, with quasi-independent bureaucratic fiefdoms dependent on but often at odds with each other, each protecting its own turf.

In 1964, legislators approved funding to plan a new prison. The state first proposed to build it on Maui, but that idea met stiff opposition and couldn’t get legislative approval.

In 1967, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency was asked to do a comprehensive review of Hawaii’s correctional services. Their study produced more than 250 specific recommendations for change that were seen as a framework for future prison planning.

Other community groups became involved. In 1969, legislators named a joint interim committee to conduct their own review, assisted by an ad hoc committee with representatives from an array of criminal justice agencies and community organizations. The John Howard Association, an independent nonprofit organization focused on prison conditions, presented its own proposal to the Legislature in 1970, calling for a small central prison in Kalihi and five community-based correctional centers across the state.

That same year, federal funds became available to develop a comprehensive correctional master plan for the state. To take advantage of the federal funding, legislators pushed ahead and agreed on some general parameters for the new prison system.

They agreed that the new prison would be in Kalihi, on the site of the existing prison. County jails would become part of the state prison system. Alternatives to incarceration, including probation and parole, would be used more often; and furlough centers, half-way houses, and conditional release centers would be established to further reduce the size of the central prison population. To improve prison operations, salaries of prison personnel would be raised, and skills improved through in-service training and paid educational leave.

In 1973, the state contracted with the National Clearinghouse on Criminal Justice Planning and Architecture at the University of Illinois to translate these and related concepts into a detailed design both for the physical facilities and the associated programs. The result became known as the Hawaii Correctional Master Plan. It provided the blueprint for what was expected to be a total transformation of the state’s prison system. Construction of the new facilities was largely finished by 1978.

Razor wire at OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center. 18 dec 20215. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Razor wire at OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The masterplan was not simply about designing prison buildings, but aimed at a complete redesign of the correctional system.

By streamlining the system, centralizing its administration and control, and relying more on a network of community-based programs than on the small secure prison in Kalihi, the plan envisioned screening inmates and assigning them to programs that would best ensure they would be prepared to reenter society at the ends of their prison terms.

The lofty vision represented years of discussions not just of buildings, but of the philosophy and goals of imprisonment. These discussions didn’t just involve prison bureaucrats and political insiders, but extended to community groups, churches, educators and correctional experts.

In terms of public participation, it was about the polar opposite of Gov. Ige’s decision to put the latest $500 million facility on a fast track.

But by the the time the new community correctional centers were built and operational, it had become obvious that the master plan was a failure.

The new buildings were almost immediately overcrowded. The different agencies in the system continued their infighting unabated, scuttling plans for a more streamlined and efficient system.

Legislators never funded the community-based programs that were supposed to be the foundation of the new system, so the programs were never implemented on the scale envisioned by the plan. And progressive legislative leadership faltered as the public, driven by campaign rhetoric, increasingly adopted a “get tough on crime” attitude.

Looking back

Up until the late 1960s, Hawaii had only a small number of prisoners, and that number had stayed relatively stable for decades. In 1973, there were only 200 inmates in the Hawaii State Prison. Based on this experience, and on past data, the correctional master plan projected only modest growth in the prison population going forward.

However, Hawaii’s traditionally liberal politicians failed to take into account either the baby boom’s new demographics or the changing political mood across the U.S. mainland and its predictable impact on the imprisonment rate locally. This was the beginning of the get tough approach, the “war on drugs,” mandatory sentences, three-strikes laws, etc., all of which combined to produce prisons bulging at the seams.

Hawaii was no different. By 1978, as construction of the community correctional centers was nearing completion, “the state was embroiled in an election campaign in which candidates were trying to outdo one another in ‘law-and-order’ rhetoric,” Corrections Magazine observed at the time.

Oahu Community Correctional Center with prison guard in walkway. 18 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A guard inside the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s prison population quickly soared beyond even the long-term estimates of the master plan, dragging down the plan’s ambitious goals.

Today, there appears to be a danger that the state will build for the crime rates of recent years, even while the current trend seems to be going in the opposite direction. Crime rates have generally been going down, not up, both in Hawaii and across the country. But it isn’t clear that Hawaii’s plans are incorporating those changes.

The danger is that we’ll end up overspending and overbuilding if we fail to look at the changing trends and potentials.

States that pioneered the “get tough” approach to crime, like California, already have confronted the fiscal reality that they can’t afford to spend or build themselves out of overcrowded prisons without first reducing the incarceration reflex, the idea that locking up offenders should be the primary solution to broader societal problems.

The 1970s master plan was built around the premise that a rich array of community programs could divert many offenders from prison.

But at that time, the state went ahead and built its new prison system before those programs were even planned, much less implemented. At the time, some said all the talk about programs was just political cover to justify the aggressive construction program.

“All they’ve ever wanted in this state is a new prison,” Don Moore, then-head of local office of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said in 1978.

A cynical view, but it’s certainly true that money for capital improvements is far easier to get approved than money for operations or subsequent maintenance.

Others, less cynical, chalked it up to the familiar scenario that once the buildings were completed, there wasn’t enough money left to get the programs off the ground.

Whatever the reason, putting prison construction before the underlying prison programming set Hawaii up for decades of chronic prison ills, and it was largely a self-inflicted injury. The prison plans were predicated on the programs, which were never seriously pursued.

Putting prison construction before the underlying prison programming set Hawaii up for decades of chronic prison ills, and it was largely a self-inflicted injury.

There are other powerful forces at work today. The money to be made through the redevelopment of the Kalihi site is inevitably having an impact on the decisions being made today, as are the special interests of the private-prison developers who have been pushing behind the scenes for an opportunity to hook the state on their products.

In his State of the State, Gov. Ige said the new prison “will be designed to take advantage of all that we have learned about incarceration, and the need to give inmates a real opportunity to change their lives.”

But to do that, the desired programs to offer inmates “a real opportunity to change” need to be spelled out now. They need to be planned for in designing the physical facilities. Otherwise, unfriendly architecture is unlikely to accommodate later programatic add-ons. History has shown that unless programs are in place before construction goes forward, the programs are highly unlikely to be developed at all.

Another key cause of the 1970s master plan’s failure was the continued infighting between parts of the correctional system, and between the judiciary and the executive branches of government, aggravated by poor management decisions throughout the system.

Today, the correctional system is far less accountable than ever before.

But today, the correctional system is far less accountable than ever before. It gets less public attention, and those subject to its arbitrary powers and poor management have fewer advocates than in the 1970s.

This makes exerting the political will to shake up prison management less likely than ever, with the economic and social costs passed on to the public.

Just a few years ago, a review known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative pointed out several sources of Hawaii’s high prison population. Data shows too many people awaiting trial are being held in custody; too few low-risk offenders are being paroled; parole violators are being held longer than necessary; and the length of probation is higher than in most states. All this drives prison populations higher, according to the JRI analysis.

And although several JRI reforms were signed into law, they have not been successfully implemented. The potential result is that we’ll be paying to provide more prison capacity than would otherwise be necessary because of our failure to make the political and administrative adjustments to bring populations down.

Things could play out differently this time around. But we’re still dealing with a state that’s more interested in and more skilled at concrete and construction than at programs and operations. We have private, for-profit prison developers interested in the hundreds of millions of dollars expected to be invested by the state, and real estate developers keenly interested getting their hands on the OCCC site in Kalihi. And at the same time, our prison system is far less transparent and less accountable than the system was four decades ago.

These are clearly red flags to be concerned about as the Legislature reviews and acts on the governor’s proposals.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.