When it comes to improving Hawaii’s aging stock of prisons and jails, all sides agree on one thing: One way or another, the crumbling Oahu Community Correctional Center, a century-old jail in Kalihi, will have to be replaced.

But the state may be getting ahead of itself in moving forward with a plan for a new OCCC.

Earlier this year, the Legislature set aside a total of nearly $18 million to study what a new OCCC might look like, along with fine-tuning the cost, coming up with financing plans and identifying potential sites. It gave the Hawaii Department of Public Safety until the start of the 2017 legislative session to finish the study and report back.

Meanwhile, the Legislature also created the Correctional Justice Task Force to “study effective incarceration policies,” but its work isn’t due until just before the 2018 legislative session — a year after significant decisions about OCCC might have already been made.

Razor wire at OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
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

“If we don’t think this through, we’re going to get an end product that probably doesn’t really reflect the values and core principles of our community,” Bob Merce, who heads the task force’s design committee, told Civil Beat. “If you really want to reflect the best of your community, you’ve got to start rethinking what a jail is.

“And where do you begin? You don’t begin with bricks and mortars and population projections. You begin with the principle, philosophy and thinking them through — we ought to do that before we spend a half billion dollars.”

On Tuesday, as the task force met to discuss the state’s incarceration policies, two schools of thought emerged over the vision for a new OCCC.

One was offered by the team of consultants hired by the Department of Public Safety to come up with a plan for a new OCCC. Its work is still in early stages, but the plan appears to revolve around building a wholesale replacement of the existing facility.

That likely means that the state will need to build a jail with a capacity to hold at least 1,200 inmates — at an estimated cost of nearly $650 million.

But several task force members had a different vision: Build a much smaller jail, with most inmates diverted to community-based programs.

That’s an idea, the task force members say, that deserves more careful thought — carried out through a deliberate process that takes into account what Merce called “the knowledge and wisdom of the community.”

“We suspect that a much smaller facility is probably very doable, particularly if you start eliminating very minor offenders who are in jail for frivolous or technical reasons,” said Meda Chesney-Lind, who heads the task force’s education subcommittee. “This is the pivotal detail that this task force has been pursuing, and the rush to any kind of finished product is really inappropriate. We need much more discussion.”

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

Moving A Prison

Relocating OCCC was one of Gov. David Ige’s top legislative priorities this year.

In January, Ige introduced a bill that would have given his administration an array of options to finance the relocation — possibly adjacent to the Halawa Correctional Facility.

Initially, the cost of the Halawa relocation was pegged at about $489 million. But the estimate turned out to be based on a years-old calculation; as the bill moved through the Legislature, the cost — adjusted for inflation and other considerations — ballooned to nearly $650 million.

In the end, lawmakers balked — and instead included provisions in the state budget, calling for a study of a preliminary design and projected cost of a new OCCC as well as financing plans and potential sites.

The Department of Public Safety contracted with Architects Hawaii, which in turn hired several subcontractors — including Louis Berger, a New Jersey-based construction and engineering.

The company’s hiring raised some eyebrows.

As Civil Beat reported last week, Louis Berger has a history of corrupt practices, including bribery and fraud, that led to fines of more than $90 million and criminal convictions of some of the company’s top executives.

But Bob Nardi, senior vice president of Louis Berger, told task force members Tuesday that the company has taken steps to correct its practices, in the form of a $25 million reform effort that began in 2010.

“There was some illegal activities by a small group of individuals. … In the end, the company has dealt with the problem and we’re a very different company today than it was back then,” Nardi said. “We’d like to put that chapter behind us, but it comes up periodically and we’re forced to face it time and time again. … But I don’t think you have anything that you should be concerned about with respect to this project.”

Architects Hawaii has declined to talk to Civil Beat about the contract and Louis Berger’s role in it.

Bettina Mehnert, Architects Hawaii’s president and CEO, sent a statement last week: “We were aware of the past issues surrounding (Louis Berger’s) international work and also aware and comfortable with the steps the company has taken since 2010 to resolve the issues and to prevent any such recurrence.”

Halawa prison inmates walk between modules on tour. 17 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
In January, Gov. David Ige introduced a bill that would have given his administration an array of options to finance the relocation — possibly adjacent to the Halawa Correctional Facility. But the bill failed to survive through the session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Not Enough Time

Merce is more concerned that the Department of Public Safety has only a few months left before the OCCC study needs to be done.

That’s nowhere near enough time for the task force and other stakeholders in the community to give any meaningful input, Merce said.

Nardi acknowledged the dilemma, telling the task force that, “We find ourselves in the middle between ‘We should take more time and be more deliberative about this’ and ‘Don’t miss a deadline for getting the report (to the Legislature).'”

But Nardi assured the task force that that he will be making every effort to reach out to all stakeholders to get their input.

“No one wants to propose to build something that is overly large or overly costly. That’s not our intentions,” Nardi said. “There’s a very different goal expressed here, and we’re trying to respond as best as we can.”

“If we don’t think this through, we’re going to get an end-product that probably doesn’t really reflect the values and core principles of our community.” — Bob Merce, member of the Correctional Justice Task Force

For his part, Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael Wilson, who chairs the task force, noted that the study may be useful in at least one respect: “We’ll have a chance to see what a traditional (jail) looks like in terms of expense. And then we’ll be able to see what adjustments we ought to make to it.”

State Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, told Civil Beat that he also doesn’t see the study as an absolute assessment of OCCC’s future.

“This is very, very early in the planning process,” Espero said. “The (Department of) Public Safety is doing what it needs to do before the Legislature starts again. But we’ll be the ones controlling the project from the cost perspective — and possibly even in terms of the site selection.”

Espero said he wants the $650 million price tag come down significantly.

“I’m of the opinion that we shouldn’t be spending anything like that for the new facility,” Espero said. “I can assure you, in my capacity, this talk of moving OCCC and the associated cost is going to get a significant vetting. And we’re going to get the community input in all of this.”

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