Gov. David Ige has authorized his staff to begin discussions with private prison companies to build a new detention center on Oahu.

In a statement, the governor confirmed that discussions have recently begun, adding that “it’s early in the process.”

“Members of my team have been actively researching financing options for a new jail on Oahu,” he told Civil Beat in an email. “We’re exploring public-private partnerships because we know we don’t have $525 million in public capital improvement program funding readily available right now.”

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center Dillingham side.

Oahu Community Correctional Center is overcrowded and due for replacement.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In an interview last week, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz said he believes the state may be preparing to lease space in a facility that would be owned by a private company, a plan he indicated he would consider supporting.

As of Feb. 28, the state was holding 5,360 inmates in facilities that were built to house 3,500, according to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

The governor has said in the past that building a new jail would cost $525 million. The Legislature has not publicly discussed major appropriations for jail construction this year despite two state task force reports on prison conditions and bail practices as well as a more recent problem with overcrowding at the Maui Correctional Center that led to a riot and significant damage.

Moreover, on Tuesday, two state Senate committees deferred House Bill 1177, a measure that proposed the purchase of the Federal Detention Center, a 12-story building near the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, to ease overcrowding at state correctional facilities.

The measure had been supported by Rep. Gregg Takayama, chairman of the House Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, who said the federal facility could hold up to 1,200 inmates and would be less expensive than building a new jail.

Senate committee members said little about why they killed the House bill, although Sen. Clarence Nishihara said the center did not offer a “rehabilitative setting.”

Criminal justice reform advocates opposed the purchase of the Federal Detention Center, saying that the state’s focus should be on rehabilitating inmates and reducing the number of people held in jail and prison rather than building or buying more institutions in which to house them.

CoreCivic is viewed as a prime candidate for a private prison because the state has a long-standing relationship with the Tennessee-based company.

More than 20 years ago, as a temporary measure, Hawaii began shipping prisoners to the mainland because it did not have enough detention space even then to house people convicted of crimes. Today approximately 1,450 inmates from Hawaii are held in a detention center in the Arizona desert called Saguaro Correctional Center, which is operated by CoreCivic. The company was previously known as Corrections Corporation of America.

Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that the state must find ways to house people who are charged and convicted of crimes.

“The state is obligated to execute the orders of the judiciary,” she said. “We are all aware there is over-crowding and we have capital improvement projects underway across the state. At the end of the day, the state must take those the judiciary sends.”

McMillan said that the governor had been willing to look at the plan to purchase the Federal Detention Center but that the Senate had killed it.

DPS has repeatedly urged state officials to find a way to increase the capacity of the state’s jails and prisons. The agency is pursuing plans to add additional cells on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island. According to a department newsletter published last month, the state is preparing draft environmental assessments in preparation for such plans.

In August, Ige announced the state had completed its review of an environmental impact statement that calls for relocating Oahu Community Correctional Center from Kalihi to the site of the Animal Quarantine Station in Halawa, a cost estimated to be $525 million. The governor hopes to redevelop the former OCCC site for redevelopment because it is located on the rail route.

The state is also moving forward with the design and construction of an expansion of the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua, to prepare for the transfer of women there from OCCC. In October, Hawaii News Now reported that state officials had set aside $40 million for the project, which will allow for construction of a new 180-bed facility there.

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