Dozens of federal offenders who have been staying in transitional housing could be returning to prison, possibly losing their jobs and other progress they’ve made because the only halfway house in Hawaii is closing when its contract with the government expires next month.
The building will instead be used as a new home for the Sand Island Treatment Center, a nonprofit rehab supported by government contracts and whose clients, in many cases, are referred by courts. The City and County of Honolulu purchased the building leased by the federal halfway house for $9 million for Sand Island, which is being forced from its current home by the expansion of the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons said in an email to Civil Beat that the contract with T.J. Mahoney and Associates Inc., a Las Vegas-based nonprofit that runs the Honolulu federal halfway house, will expire on Sept. 30.
The bureau did not respond to additional questions about the closing. However, the agency said it was seeking “alternative methods” for transitional services in Hawaii, and that it has not received any viable offers yet, meaning the state would be without a federal halfway house indefinitely.
Kandy Key, a Las Vegas-based director of operations at T.J. Mahoney and Associates, declined to be interviewed.
“It’s devastating for us as a community to lose that resource,” said Chief U.S. Probation Officer Jonathan Skedeleski, who oversees federal probation operations in Hawaii.
The federal prisons bureau contracts with 170 halfway houses, also known as “residential reentry centers,” across the country. Federal offenders can receive transitional services, including employment counseling, job placement and case management.
The Honolulu halfway house, called Mahoney Hale, houses more than 70 people. Some of those people — both men and women — who have remaining sentences would be sent back to prison, Skedeleski said, which could mean losing the jobs and lives they’ve rebuilt outside prison walls.
Since Hawaii is nowhere near any other state, offenders cannot be reassigned to other facilities, as happens elsewhere, he said.
“It’s like a tsunami you know is coming,” Skedeleski said. “And how do you brace for it? We’ve never experienced anything like that.”
The city heard about the building at the intersection of Kaaahi Street and Kaamahu Place in Kalihi last year when it was on the lookout for a new home for the Sand Island Treatment Center, said Sandy Pfund, the city’s director of land management.
Pfund said the city is helping Sand Island because it provides a valuable service to the community and has maintained a relationship with the city for a long time.
“They do good work,” Pfund said. “They’re a positive force in our community.”
In an investigation published in April, Civil Beat found that the nonprofit rehab had paid its executive director an annual salary of as much as $500,000, far beyond the pay of his counterparts at other Hawaii treatment centers, including ones with bigger budgets. Pay for counselors at Sand Island also eclipses the average for Hawaii, sometimes reaching into six figures.
The Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, which oversees nonprofits, later revealed that it had made a deal with Sand Island in 2017 that included executive director Mason Henderson paying back some of his salary and the appointment of more independent board members. But the rehab ignored much of the agreement until after Civil Beat’s story and the attorney general’s followup. In a letter, Sand Island wrote that Henderson had “always intended to pay but got distracted.”
Properties adjacent to Sand Island’s new home, including 525 Kaaahi Street, have been purchased for rail development, though this particular building, Pfund said, has no nexus to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.
The property’s owner was looking to sell because T.J. Mahoney and Associates, which had been leasing the building to operate the federal halfway house for 29 years, had indicated that the program would be ending, according to Pfund and City Councilman Joey Manahan, whose district includes the building.
It’s not clear why T.J. Mahoney and Associates’ contract with the Bureau of Prisons is ending. Neither the nonprofit nor the federal agency would provide a reason.
Mahoney Hale, the federal halfway house, still occupies the Kalihi building on a short-term lease, property records show. Residents will have to vacate by Sept. 30, when the federal contract ends, said Zabrina Spencer, an assistant director at Mahoney Hale.
Nationally, there’s a push to help former prisoners re-enter everyday life, Skedeleski, the federal probation officer, noted.
He pointed to Congress’ passage last year of the First Step Act focusing on helping formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into society.
It provides major incentives for inmates to take part in pre-release programs, authorizing $250 million for the Bureau of Prisons to provide vocational programs and to move people closer to home.
“The irony is that during this time, we’re losing the residential re-entry center,” Skedeleski said. “As a state, I don’t know where we’re going.”
The halfway house is used for prisoners awaiting trial, sentenced to probation or nearing the ends of their sentences. The most glaring impact would be that there will be one less alternative to incarceration, no matter what stage an offender is at, Skedeleski said.
Many federal prisoners get shortened sentences if they do time in a halfway house, he added. That’s no longer going to be an option either.
And when they do get out of prison, they will “just hit the streets cold,” he said.
“You’re going to have people without any transitional services who are going to be released directly from the institution and not have the ability to slowly integrate into the community,” he said.
While the Bureau of Prisons figures out next steps, Skedeleski said other federal offices have stepped up to help.
For instance, the U.S. Probation Office in Honolulu plans to do more location-based monitoring so that offenders spend less time locked up, he said.
But that’s not a sustainable solution, he added. In the end, the Bureau of Prisons will have to establish another federal halfway house in Hawaii.
Robin Kumabe’s nonprofit Touch A Heart, which also runs a catering service, works frequently with Mahoney Hale to recruit interns for its vocational program.
One of its top graduates was supposed to be released to Mahoney Hale in July, but because of the closing, has to remain incarcerated.
Kumabe said the organization had a job lined up for the inmate. But that’s now on hold.
“It’s actually been really hard not to have her back with us,” Kumabe said. “We were hoping that she was coming out in July.”
Civil Beat reporters John Hill and Marcel Honore contributed to this story.
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