It makes sense to select the Animal Quarantine Station in Halawa as the site of a new jail to replace the aging, over-capacity Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi. It’s an industrial area already home to the state’s special needs and medium security Halawa Correctional Facility.

What doesn’t make sense is to proceed much beyond a site selection decision without a full public discussion on big issues — like how the new OCCC will be paid for and how long-awaited prison reform efforts will fit in to the picture.

Gov. David Ige and Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda announced the new site earlier this month and pegged the cost as at least $525 million. They say the money could come through selling general obligation bonds or having a private prison operate the facility under a lease-back arrangement. Officials hope to have the new jail built by 2023.

But given Hawaii’s experience with its current private-prison contractor, CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), the state needs to tread very carefully before pursuing the private contractor route again.

new OCCC Replacement Director Public Safety Nolan Espinda speaks with Gov David Ige announcing a new $525 million OCCC replacement in Halawa on the site of the animal quarantine area.

Director of Public Safety Nolan Espinda with Gov. David Ige announcing a new $525 million OCCC replacement in Halawa.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

CoreCivic operates the Saguaro Correctional Center, the men’s prison in Arizona that currently holds about 1,450 Hawaii inmates.

CoreCivic has a record of horrendous treatment of prisoners. And as Civil Beat has reported, CoreCivic and DPS have often refused to release public records and other information about the operation of Saguaro and the treatment of prisoners there.

Not all private prison companies have bad track records, and partnering with a private company to build and operate a new OCCC may be a good solution. But the state needs to make sure the decision-making process is open to public scrutiny and prison operations are transparent and accountable to the public.

But first, let’s have an honest conversation about why so many people are winding up in Hawaii’s jails and prisons, and if there is a better way to go.

The Hawaii Legislature, which must ultimately approve jail financing, is awaiting reports from task forces on bail reform and correctional practices. The conclusions and recommendations from the reports need to be factored into any decision on a new jail; simply moving prisoners from one jail to another is no solution.

Models for criminal justice reform exist in other states. California has effectively eliminated the payment of cash bail as a condition of release, while Texas has found ways to reduce incarceration through addressing substance abuse and promoting parole, probation and re-entry programs. Both states have giant inmate populations, and Texas in particular has a well-earned reputation for locking people up and throwing away the proverbial key.

Hawaii passed what are known as “justice reinvestment” reforms in 2012 similar to what Texas and other states have implemented. But OCCC today holds 1,222 inmates, more than 200 beyond its capacity. And we are still flying Halawa inmates to Saguaro.

Gov. David Ige deserves credit for persisting on a controversial issue, especially since the current OCCC site is to be along Honolulu’s rail line. The Legislature has also demonstrated that it can respond to crisis situations, as when it moved last year to allocate $160 million for a new Hawaii State Hospital.

But the potential for delays and cost overruns — think the hugely over budget Honolulu rail project —  understandably make make us nervous. Let’s ensure that a new OCCC does not become become another near bottomless public works project. As important, let’s find ways to bring down the number of our citizens we put behind bars.

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