Among the items on Gov. David Ige’s wish list for the 2016 legislative session, nothing was more costly than what House Bill 2388 was seeking: to relocate the crumbling Oahu Community Correctional Center at the expense of nearly $500 million.

If approved, the bill would have paved the way for one of the most expensive public works projects in the state’s history, second only to the Honolulu rail.

About This Project

Nonetheless, the bill had an improbable run at the Legislature — sailing through both House and Senate and surviving until the last week of the session. In the end, though, it failed to clear the conference committee.

But not all was lost for the Ige administration: The Legislature set aside $5.4 million — and allowed for up to $12.5 million more in general funds — to conduct a study of a preliminary design and projected cost of a new OCCC, as well as financing plans and potential sites.

State officials hope that the study will help convince the Legislature to finally sign off on and allocate the funds for OCCC’s relocation when the new session begins in January.

OCCC. Oahu Community Correctional Center. Kalihi. Jail. 19 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Originally built in 1916, the Oahu Community Correctional Center is in Kalihi near property that the city is eyeing for the rail project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But not so fast: There’s little evidence that the Legislature will be any more receptive to supporting the massive undertaking.

That’s because OCCC’s relocation still must wade through a host of challenges — from the sky-high cost and community opposition to conflicting visions for how a new OCCC should function — if it’s ever to get the green light.

State Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, says he won’t be holding his breath.

“This is really the age-old problem where corrections and prison issues are always at the bottom of the totem pole,” Espero said. “At the end of the day, nobody wants to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on correctional facilities, when we have more pressing needs in other areas.”

Legislative Deadline Approaches

To meet the legislative mandate, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety has so far tapped about $5 million in state funds that had been allocated in 2014 — instead of up to $17.9 million earmarked in the 2016 session — and brought on a team of consultants, led by Architects Hawaii, to work on the OCCC study.

The consultants are on a tight schedule: The Legislature told the department to finish the study and report back no later than 20 days before the new session, which is set to begin Jan. 18.

With the time crunch, the consultants appear to be working on a plan that revolves around building a wholesale replacement of the existing facility.

“You’ve got to start somewhere and you’ve got to start with some set of assumptions, and the assumption we’re starting with is how the system functions today,” said Bob Nardi, senior vice president of Louis Berger, one of the subcontractors working with Architects Hawaii.

That likely means the study will examine what it will take to build a facility with a capacity to hold anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 inmates.

As of Sept. 19, the department housed 1,356 inmates at OCCC, more than twice its designed capacity.

According to the Hawaii Department of Accounting and General Services, the cost of building a 1,250-bed facility adjacent to the Halawa Correctional Facility, as proposed under HB 2388, is nearly $650 million — after adjusting the bill’s initial estimate of $489 million for inflation and other considerations.

Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, says the cost reminds her of the Honolulu rail project, which has been plagued by cost overruns.

“We could have another really bad movie like the Honolulu rail project,” Chesney-Lind said. “We didn’t do any careful assessment. We pulled a bunch of plans off the shelf that were decades old and basically funded that. And look at where we are now. Don’t assume that we won’t have those same cost overruns with the jail facility.”

State Rep. Gregg Takayama, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, says the Legislature isn’t exactly “rushing to sell bonds for” a new OCCC.

“It’s something that will not happen until a very thoughtful consideration is taken place,” Takayama said. “I don’t speak for the entire Legislature, but I’m 99 percent sure that’s the thought of every other legislator.”

Nardi says the consultants aren’t pushing to overbuild.

“No good comes out of building something twice as big as it needs to be. I want to make sure that people understand that,” Nardi said. “But I’d rather start with a set of assumptions that result in a bigger effort because it’s a lot easier to make something smaller — less environmental impact, less strain on infrastructure, less traffic — as opposed to the other way around.”

Oahu Community Correctional Center. 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

A Push For Better Planning

Chesney-Lind believes that, with a little foresight, the cost of a new OCCC could be brought down considerably.

The trick is to build a much smaller facility, with most inmates diverted to community-based programs, says Chesney-Lind, a member of the Correctional Justice Task Force, which was created by the Legislature in April to “study effective incarceration policies.”

“The real lesson looking back over decades of corrections history in Hawaii is that it’s time to get smart about this — to look at the data first and see what the needs are and then study what other jurisdictions are doing in similar situations,” said Chesney-Lind, who heads the task force’s education subcommittee. “We have a number of different models to look at. But all of them involve a way more careful approach to figure out how all of this will fit together, especially how much of this extremely expensive building we really need.”

The trouble is, the task force is charged with examining all facets of Hawaii’s criminal justice system, including alternatives to incarceration, without any money from the Legislature.

“We cannot afford to replicate the mistakes of the past and simply repackage them into a shiny new jail.” — Bob Merce, member of the Correctional Justice Task Force

And its recommendations won’t be ready until 2018 — a full year after the Department of Public Safety’s study is due at the Legislature.

Bob Merce, who heads the task force’s design subcommittee, says that the Legislature is better off doing nothing about a new OCCC until the task force report is done.

“We cannot afford to replicate the mistakes of the past and simply repackage them into a shiny new jail,” Merce said. “We need to rethink what a jail can and should be, and not pull old plans off the shelf and build a jail that will be obsolete long before it’s even built.”

State Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, says he’s open to letting the task force do its job before moving forward.

“Because we’ll spend so much money on this thing, and this is going to be something we’ll have to live with for the next 20 years or longer, maybe spending a little bit of time on the front end is a good thing to do,” Nishihara said.

Espero agrees with the task force members that a lot more needs to be done to bolster community-based programs.

“If we’re willing to put more effort into rehab and dealing with recidivism, we can lower the cost of the new facility tremendously,” Espero said. “I’d say we should delay this whole thing for another year or so because I don’t think we’ve done enough to deal with alternatives to incarceration. I mean, there’s so much more we can do.”

OCCC prison jail EIC forum Public Safety Director Noland Espinda. 28 sept 2016
Nolan Espinda, director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, says the planning process for the Oahu Community Correctional Center’s replacement is at “very, very early stages.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Community Input Sought

Nolan Espinda, the public safety director, says the department is no longer pushing to fast-track OCCC’s relocation to Halawa and is now open to “every plausible idea and every concept” for a new OCCC.

“People, through their elected officials, chose for us to look at a broader scope and a broader range of alternatives. And that’s the process that we’re in right now,” Espinda said.

Two weeks ago, at the meeting of the Corrections Population Management Commission, Espinda himself offered an idea: Instead of building a jail, which holds pretrial inmates and those sentenced to less than a year, the state could develop a prison that’s big enough to hold about 1,000 Halawa prisoners, as well as about 1,400 prisoners housed at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona.

That, in turn, would make it possible to move OCCC inmates to an emptied Halawa.

Espinda says he shared his idea at the meeting, even though the commission — created in 1993 to manage overcrowding in the state’s prisons and jails — isn’t directly involved in the planning for OCCC’s relocation. It was an attempt, he says, “to open up our thought process.”

“We’re at very, very early stages of the planning. And anyone who has a thought or an idea should be coming forward with it,” Espinda said. “So I put forward an idea with that thought in mind.”

Meanwhile, the consultants have been making rounds to get community input.

“Aside from the rail and homelessness, this is probably the single biggest issue that we need to address in (Kalihi).” — City Councilman Joey Manahan

Last week, the consultants held a scoping meeting at Farrington High School as part of an environmental review process, which is gauging the potential impact of building a new OCCC either at its current 16-acre site in Kalihi or on the largely industrial, state-owned land in Halawa Valley.

The community’s interest in the process appeared to be high: More than 50 people showed up to the meeting, including Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan, whose district includes Kalihi.

Manahan said the consultants’ work is of great interest to his constituents, most of whom would likely support OCCC’s removal from Kalihi because it would give the area a whole new look and feel.

“Aside from the rail and homelessness, this is probably the single biggest issue that we need to address in my district,” Manahan said.

But Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says the consultants should be doing a better job of reaching out to the community.

“They aren’t talking to us about the important stuff: Who’s in (OCCC)? What kind of programs do they need? What kind of space would that take? What’s the latest design that works for rehabilitation? There’s lots of things they could do,” Brady said. “Instead, it’s all about site selections and brick and mortar. They’re just going to build a building and jam the people in there.”

Still, Espero says the consultants’ work to identify potential sites will likely prove useful, regardless of whether the Legislature adopts the overall recommendations.

“The discussion on locations is important because that’s the biggest issue stalling this project,” Espero said.

Takayama, meanwhile, says it’s important to remember that it’s still early in the process, and that the Legislature has the final say on a new OCCC.

“We can at least get some cost figures on building OCCC at either Halawa or Kalihi or some other sites. That’s something the Legislature needs to take a look and consider,” Takayama said. “And, if we decide that a 600-bed facility is what the state really needs — instead of a 1,200-bed facility — that’s what we and the (Ige) administration will plan for, accordingly.”

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