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State Rep. Gregg Takayama, chairman of the House public safety committee, has a big idea.
He wants the state to buy the underutilized Federal Detention Center in Honolulu, a plan he thinks could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and provide a quick fix to Hawaii’s overcrowded corrections system.
Hawaii’s eight jails and prisons are jammed to the rafters, forcing the state to ship more than 1,400 people to the mainland to a private for-profit prison. Meanwhile, the Federal Detention Center, a modern high-rise built in 2001 near Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, houses only 400 prisoners but has capacity for 1,200, according to Takayama.
“It’s time to consider alternatives,” said Takayama. He introduced House Bill 1177, which calls for the state to enter negotiations with federal officials to buy the prison. “To me this is an idea worth exploring.”
The House Finance Committee approved the bill Thursday and it’s headed next to a floor vote.
Takayama thinks buying the federal facility would provide some immediate relief, especially if the state also reduces the number of inmates by enacting bail reform that would release more defendants while they await trial.
He envisions being able to shut down the decrepit Oahu Community Correctional Center, which houses about 1,300 inmates, and using the newer federal facility instead. That would permit the current OCCC site in Kalihi, which is on the rail line, to be redeveloped.
The possibility of taking over the Federal Detention Center has been discussed in the past. Four years ago, Gov. David Ige reached out to the Obama administration to see if it would be interested in selling or leasing the facility to Hawaii, but according to Ige spokeswoman Cindy McMillan, at that time the federal government wasn’t interested.
At a Finance Committee hearing Thursday, Nolan Espinda, director of the Department of Public Safety, said Ige supports the idea of buying the center and is reaching out to find the right point of contact.
Ige is willing to explore the issue again, McMillan confirmed.
Takayama said the governor intends to raise the issue in Washington this week while attending the National Governors Association annual meeting. Takayama believes the Trump administration may be more open to the idea.
“Dollar signs attract this current administration so it seems this might be a favorable time,” Takayama said.
Moreover, bipartisan federal legislation called the First Step Act, which was signed into law in December, is designed to reduce recidivism and decrease the number of inmates, which Takayama thinks will make the federal government more amenable to transferring its detention center to state control.
He thinks Hawaii could sweeten the deal by offering to house the smaller population of federal inmates for free in exchange for being allowed to buy the center.
For decades, Hawaii has been wrestling with the consequences of holding too many inmates in too few jail cells. In the past 50 years, the state has taken a get-tough-on-crime approach but was never willing to spend the money to build sufficient facilities for the number of people incarcerated.
In 1984, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state, saying poor living conditions and overcrowding at OCCC constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”
An ACLU official at that time criticized the state for housing two or three inmates in antiquated cells that had been built to hold just one.
In 1985, the federal government cracked down on Hawaii, and for 14 years, the state’s jails and prisons had to submit to monitoring by national experts. The state made improvements, built the Halawa Medium Security Facility in 1987 and began sending inmates to private prisons on the mainland. The consent decree was lifted in 1999, with the ACLU reporting that conditions had improved.
But around the same time, three-strikes laws took hold across the country, including Hawaii. So the state’s inmate population again began to grow.
At OCCC, there are once again two or three inmates in cells designed to hold one — requiring one of the prisoners to sleep each night with his head next to the cell’s toilet.
Hawaii is holding about 5,400 inmates but has only 3,500 spots available in the state to house them.
The situation in Hawaii’s jails is cramped and unsustainable, according to the public safety department.
“Hawaii’s jail population has grown well beyond the system’s capacity, during which time no new jail facilities were added to the system,” DPS wrote in a newsletter in May.
In 2017, the ACLU filed another complaint about the overcrowding.
Fixing the problem by building new detention facilities would be costly. Ige’s recent proposal to build a new correctional facility to relieve overcrowding carries a price tag of more than $500 million.
According to Takayama, completely replacing or refurbishing the state’s prisons and jails would cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion.
Buying an existing and underused detention facility might be considerably cheaper. The federal facility was built at a cost of $170 million.
Consequently, Takayama’s legislation is gaining traction, with 27 House co-sponsors, more than half of the chamber’s total membership.
It has rocketed through four House committees — Public Safety, Labor, Judiciary and Finance — all by unanimous votes.
Public safety committee members have seen the overcrowding problem for themselves. In January, Takayama led a group that included four other representatives — Cedric Asuega Gates, Takashi Ohno, Sam Satoru Kong and Bob McDermott, along with legislative staff members, to tour OCCC.
It was “educational and illuminating,” said McDermott in an email to Civil Beat. He said the cells were very small, with inmates compelled to sleep next to toilets, and that the furniture and fixtures for visitors had not been replaced for decades.
“Everything reeks of being antiquated and not up to speed,” he wrote.
The isolation units, he said, reminded him of the prison cells in what was called the Hanoi Hilton, where the North Vietnamese held American prisoners of war.
He said inmates in these particularly small units sleep on concrete slabs. Each unit is equipped “with shackles if needed to keep the inmate restrained for their own protection,” he wrote.
Reform of the justice system and the physical structures is overdue, McDermott said.
But even as support for the idea grows in some quarters, Takayama’s proposal also faces formidable obstacles. For one thing, it isn’t clear how it would be viewed by the federal government or how forceful Hawaii would be in taking the necessary first steps.
Kristin Germosen, public information officer for the Federal Detention Center, said the state has not been in contact with the Bureau of Prisons and has not presented a proposal to buy the center.
A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington echoed her comments, but added that transfers of prisons from federal to state hands are not unprecedented.
The effort would need buy-in from the state’s four-member congressional delegation, who would likely play an important role in any purchase negotiations. Takayama said he hasn’t heard from any of them.
Advocates of criminal justice reform, meanwhile, are vocally opposed, including some who participated in a recent task force that created a blueprint for overhauling Hawaii’s prison system.
They think buying another big corrections facility is backward thinking. They want to focus on reducing the inmate population by focusing on mental health and substance abuse treatment, housing the homeless and seeking ways to rehabilitate people who have committed crimes rather than warehousing them in austere and inhumane settings. To them, the 12-story Federal Detention Center is exactly the wrong kind of place to house people who need to be reintegrated into society.
But the public safety department, the agency that runs the state’s corrections facilities, supports the idea.
“I see it as a reasonable alternative to building something,” Espinda told legislators Thursday. “We’d look favorably on it if we could vacate OCCC … We’re keeping our eyes open to anything that resolves the huge overcrowding issue at OCCC.”
Could it actually happen? Even Takayama is skeptical. But he thinks it is worth taking the risk.
“I realize it has a snowball’s chance … but why not try?” he said. “It doesn’t cost us anything and if it happens to save us hundreds of millions of dollars, so much the better.”
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