Despite recurring reports about overcrowding and gritty conditions in Hawaii jails, the lack of community support for the construction of new detention facilities has helped doom projects to failure for decades.

But in a surprise move, after early indications it would oppose the project, the Aiea Neighborhood Board has given its blessing to the state’s next planning steps toward building a new jail in Halawa to replace the decrepit Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi.

If the plan advances, the city approves the zoning and the state comes up with the money, a multi-story correctional complex would be built on the 29-acre site that houses the Animal Quarantine Station. It could house the approximately 1,200 inmates that are now held at OCCC, in quarters that were built to hold only 950.

Animal Quarantine entrance road near future jail site in Aiea Halawa.
The state Animal Quarantine Station would be the location of the new proposed jail to replace the overcrowded Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The new facility would also provide more space than OCCC for inmate training and educational programs, a library and health care services.

“We’re not one of those communities that just say, ‘No, not in our community,’” said Bill Clark, a retired deputy police chief who chairs the Aiea board. “We’re not those kinds of people.”

The board voted 12 to 1 to support the request from the state Department of Accounting and General Services to seek a zoning change called a “Plan Review Use” from the Honolulu City Council. The action is needed because there is no specific zoning that allows for jail or prison construction.

Gov. David Ige has endorsed the move to the new site in Halawa.

Several board members interviewed after the meeting said that opinion about the jail is divided in Aiea but that they believe that a new jail is needed, if not in Aiea, then somewhere.

“We need a jail,” said board member Carolyn Kimball, a retired real estate appraiser. “It has to go somewhere. That’s an industrial area. There’s no one in their backyard. It makes sense, it’s practical.”

“We’ve got to help these kids,” said board member May Imamura-Uruu, a retired school teacher who worked with some special needs students who later became criminals. “If we don’t help them, they’ll get worse.”

Francie Luana Whitfield, a board member who works at the Pearl Harbor historic site, said she would prefer the state put the jail someplace else but that she believes inmates deserve better treatment than they are getting now.

“I’ve heard about conditions at OCCC—something needs to be done,” she said. “This is a big decision. It ends up affecting people in the system—our loved ones and friends.”

An Aggressive Pitch

The architects for the proposed jail have visited the Aiea board several times to make presentations on the progress of the plans. They made their first presentation to the board back in 2016. They have frequently gotten a chilly reception from area residents.

Clark said people in Aiea are worried about public safety if inmates escape, negative effects on local businesses, increased traffic, transportation issues for inmates and their families because there is no bus service to the area, and whether assistance will be given to inmates who are released without any place to go.

Given all those concerns, and the fact that board members felt that state officials had not adequately responded to their questions, the board voted unanimously in September against giving their approval to the state’s effort to seek the PRU zoning from the city.

The Aiea board’s meetings are not videotaped by Olelo, unlike most of the other boards, but the written minutes show that a number of residents raised concerns at that time.

State officials got the message. At the December meeting, held on Monday at the Aiea public library, several of them appeared to make a full-court press to answer board members’ questions.

Joe Earing, head of DAGS’ capital improvement projects section, told them that OCCC was “old, outdated and lacks adequate space.”

Oahu Community Correctional Center media tour 2019 inmate walks down hall between modules.
Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi houses more than 1,200 inmates in a space built for about 950. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Nolan Espinda, director of the state department of public safety, spoke about the need for more space to provide better health and educational services for inmates so they could better cope with life when they are released.

He said he would try to find out about improving bus service to the area.

Trepidations And Concerns

But he told them he could not give them assurances that all problems would be resolved.

“There’s a lot of trepidations, fears and concerns and rightfully so,” he told them. “I cannot promise you anything going forward and anybody who tells you he can is not telling the truth.”

Espinda told them he needed their help.

“We need the PRU process to move forward so we can continue the process,” he said. “It’s an absolutely essential part of the process … If the (Honolulu) Council comes and asks did you talk to the neighborhood, we want to be able to say yes.”

The board members were also provided with a flow chart that showed there would be other points at which board members and residents could raise concerns, including during the city’s review process. If the plan review is approved by the city and construction funds are obtained, the state would begin a request for proposals that would permit another round of community outreach, they were told.

State officials clearly made some headway. Kimball said she and other board members decided to give their approval to this step to keep the process moving forward.

“The PRU isn’t giving away any authority for anything but to investigate further,” she said. “Everybody felt it was not much of a threat.”

In an email, board member Mike Dwyer said in his opinion, the vote this week did not represent that the board was offering “universal support” for the jail but that the board’s process had allowed the board to get more information from state officials and make its reservations known to them.

“My personal opinion is that the current site is best,” he wrote.

Animal Quarantine entrance road near future jail site in Aiea Halawa.
The site of the future proposed jail is in an industrial area about 1 mile from Halawa Correctional Facility, a state prison. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In an interview, Claire Tamamoto, president of the Aiea Community Association, said she did not think the vote represented an endorsement of the jail proposal because many residents oppose the jail project.

“We don’t necessarily like the idea of a jail being located in the Aiea vicinity,” said Tamamoto, who attended the board meeting and asked state officials several pointed questions about inmate occupancy and traffic issues.

She said Aiea residents will continue to monitor the process closely.

“We’re trying to make our voices heard,” she said.

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