A preliminary report from a task force created by the Legislature last year to propose ways to improve the correctional system suggests it may be possible to dramatically reduce our prison and  jail population and, in turn, the size of a proposed replacement for the aging Oahu Community Correction Center.

The task force, chaired by Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson, found less than one-quarter of OCCC inmates are incarcerated for the most serious class A and B felonies, while the bulk are there for less serious crimes, including misdemeanors and technical violations.

The task force believes pre-trial or even pre-arrest diversion programs for first-time or minor offenders, along with a number of other emerging “best practices,” should make it possible to reduce the spiraling number of prisoners and the costs of detaining them. If true, this would have major implications for the size and type of facility that would be needed to replace OCCC.

A guard tower at Oahu Community Correctional Center, which is in need of replacement. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

An informational hearing on the preliminary task force report is scheduled Thursday at 10 a.m. in the Capitol’s Conference Room 312. The hearing is being held jointly by the House Committee on Public Safety and the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs. The chairs of both committees, Rep. Gregg Takayama and Sen. Clarence Nishihara, are on the task force.

Dynamic Tension

Legislators appear to be stuck between a rock and a hard place as they consider how to replace the aging OCCC, the state’s largest jail. It is currently home for nearly 1,000 inmates, more than double its original design capacity.

The issue seemed relatively straightforward last year when Gov. David Ige introduced a proposal to fast-track planning and construction for a new jail facility, looking to get the job done quicker than normal by exempting it from environmental and other reviews.

There appears to be no dispute that the 40-year old facility is in failing physical condition, the result of chronic overcrowding and Hawaii’s typical inattention to repair and maintenance of public facilities. In addition, the Department of Public Safety says the basic layout and design of OCCC is inefficient, outmoded and unnecessarily costly to operate.

The state must decide just how big of a facility it will build to replace OCCC. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But with an estimated price tag that starts at about $650 million and goes up from there, pressing ahead to replace the aging structure has created political headaches and pushback from some legislators, already stressed over how to handle other pending big-ticket items, including the seemingly bottomless pit of Honolulu’s rail system, collective bargaining costs from the current round of contract negotiations and state’s large unfunded public employee pension and health care liabilities.

So last year legislators approved moving forward on two somewhat divergent tracks.

Over $5 million was included in the state budget for preliminary planning and site review for a new facility, allowing corrections officials to retain consultants and move forward aggressively with an eye toward starting construction as early as 2019.

At the same time, legislators approved House Concurrent Resolution 85, which established what is now referred to simply as the HCR 85 Task Force. Legislators included representatives from the judiciary, Public Safety, the Honolulu prosecutor’s office, Hawaii Paroling Authority, the University of Hawaii, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, although they did not appropriate any funds for its work. Two former prison inmates were also appointed.

The task force began meeting in mid-2016, and is supposed to submit a draft of its final report to the Legislative Reference Bureau by Aug. 1. Its final report is due 20 days before the opening of the 2018 legislative session.

The task force interim report sets out its preliminary findings in several broad strokes, promising to fill in the gaps with details of programs reflecting “best practices” in correctional policies before the final report is submitted.

Preliminary Recommendations

“To improve outcomes and bring costs under control, Hawaii must chart a new course and transition from a punitive to a rehabilitative correctional model,” the task force says in its preliminary report. The move is driven by “the fact that all but a few of the men and women who go to prison will one day return to the community.” Therefore, the task force says, the question for public policy is how to use their time in prison to shape their lives for the better and change the behavior that landed them in prison.

The report proposes moving away from viewing prison as punishment and instead treating incarcerated persons “with aloha” as a core value.

One key is education and training for prison and jail workers, and the task force recommends creation of a corrections academy for employees in both the executive and judicial branches.

It recommends setting targets for reducing the prison population through diversion programs, bail reform and efficiencies in processing pre-trial detainees, and “focused, evidenced-based rehabilitative programs for those in prison.”

“The question should not be how large a new jail needs to be, but how small the jail can be with successful diversion programs? Overbuilding would be one of the worst mistakes the State could make,” the report states.

Assessing The Prospects

Although the task force is asking legislators to put further planning for the OCCC replacement on hold pending an opportunity to fully consider its final report, a bill is moving that would direct the Department of Public Safety to proceed immediately to plan a 3,000-bed facility in Waiawa.

A new jail for 3,000 prisoners would be more than twice the size previously being planned, and would up the ante considerably in terms of both the financial and political capital needed to move ahead. The estimated cost of $650 million was for a facility to house 1,000-1,200 inmates. A 3,000-bed facility built to handle prisoners of all security levels, as called for in this bill, would cost significantly more.

House Bill 462 was introduced by Takayama and several others, and passed out of his Public Safety Committee last week. It would allow a public-private partnership to develop the 3,000-bed facility to be leased back to the state and operated by public employees. The bill is scheduled for a hearing before the House Finance Committee on Thursday morning at 11 a.m.

Any project expected to cost nearly a billion dollars will come with lots of built-in political support from all those who would benefit.

Of course, the task force and its nontraditional recommendations already faced an uphill political battle before this latest proposal.

It’s obvious that any project expected to cost nearly a billion dollars will come with lots of built-in political support from all those who would benefit, including private prison operators, construction companies and consultants, architects and engineers jockeying for contracts, unionized construction workers and prison guards, and other interests hoping to catch some of the trickle-down benefits, along with the many lobbyists representing the various groups.

For example, CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, spent more than $142,000 last year to lobby at the Legislature, and can be expected to at least match that total this year. The company currently holds contracts to house about 1,300 Hawaii inmates at its privately operated mainland facilities.

The task force recommendations to adopt “best practices” developed elsewhere runs counter to the conservative, insular core of the islands’ small town thinking and politics. “We’ve always done it this way” almost always seems to trump improvements promised by adopting new approaches demonstrated elsewhere.

And to be realistic, we’ve been in this same spot before, and things didn’t go well. The current OCCC was designed and built 40 years ago after an extensive, ambitious and far better funded planning process that covered much of this same terrain. It also envisioned a smaller centralized prison system that relied on a network of community-based alternatives that would process the majority of small time offenders, diverting them from away from more expensive prisons and jails.

Its design, now seen as outmoded and uneconomical, was predicated on the same kind of reorientation now presented anew by the HCR 85 Task Force. But construction of buildings is easy, while building a consensus on a new philosophical approach to imprisonment proved much harder. Infighting between entrenched bureaucratic fiefdoms, and the politicization of a “get tough” approach to crime, blocked the development of alternatives and resulted in the collapse of the whole reform effort.

The vision represented by the OCCC was sabotaged and abandoned by the time the new facility opened its doors and took in its first prisoners in 1975.

Even the more recent Justice Reinvestment Act reforms, which passed in 2012 in stripped-down form after a similar evidence-based planning process, floundered without making much headway against “the way we’ve always done things.”

The preliminary report of the HCR 85 Task Force makes sense. It is wonderful reading, spelling out so much of what is wrong with our traditional approach to prisons and what tools we have to pivot in a new direction.

 It recognizes that high incarceration rates and soaring prison budgets have not bought us improved outcomes, reduced crime rates or safer lives. And it recommends that we adopt innovative policies and programs that have allowed other state prison systems to reduce both prison and jail populations and costs, not necessarily because they wanted to but because they had to in order to avoid their own fiscal disasters.

But realistically speaking, a narrative based on good sense policies that have worked elsewhere is unlikely to be enough to disrupt this next billion-dollar round of prison construction. At least not unless more taxpayers and their legislators conclude we just can’t afford to cling to our old ways and the high price tag they carry.

Disclosure: The columnist’s wife, Professor Meda Chesney-Lind, is a member of the task force representing UH.

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.