HILO, Hawaii — No one is pretending the proposed new addition to the Hawaii Community Correctional Center will solve the center’s most pressing problems — not the jail staff, not the neighbors, not inmates or their loved ones. The proposed $14 million complex, which would be built on the site of a former jail building which was recently knocked down, would provide new beds for a maximum of 48 inmates.
Even the acting warden is skeptical. Like many others in the community, he believes what’s really needed is an entirely new facility.
According to the state Department of Public Safety’s monthly population report for November, the most recent month available online, the jail’s current buildings have the operational capacity for 226 inmates.
As of Nov. 30, the facility held 428 inmates — 342 men and 86 women. The new addition won’t even come close to solving the overcrowding that currently exists in the jail. Meanwhile some inmates are sleeping on mats on the floor with inadequate restroom, shower and exercise facilities.
And the inmates aren’t the only ones suffering.
At a meeting Thursday in Hilo — the first public meeting held on the proposed expansion, although the state has already drawn up plans for the facility and intends to advertise for bids to build the project in March — neighbors of the facility expressed frustration over years of living next to the existing prison.
They were particularly concerned about inmates who were released and had no one to pick them up, who crossed their lawns, who stopped at their houses to ask for cigarettes. A resident said one inmate washed himself off with her garden hose.
They also complained that the relatives visiting the inmates had inadequate parking, forcing them to park on the narrow road outside the facility. They noted that the jail may have been at a remote location when it was built, but was now surrounded by residential neighborhoods and several schools, including Hilo High and Hilo Intermediate.
Several said they didn’t feel safe letting their children play in their own yards because of the inmates.
They also felt that they hadn’t been consulted adequately. Many said they had not seen any notice about the project during the comment period allotted during the environmental assessment for the project, which was the only chance for public input until this meeting.
The residents who spoke almost unanimously believed that the facility should be moved elsewhere. Several suggested that the site should be on a lot which was already owned by the state on Stainback Highway near the prison in Kulani.
But state officials at the meeting said they had repeatedly sent requests for planning money for a new facility — either at the Kulani site or on the Kona side of the island, where about half the residents of the current jail hail from — with no luck.
Hawaii Community Correctional Center’s Acting Warden, Cramer Mahoi, told the residents that both he and the former warden instead supported placing a new facility in Kona.
A proposal for a multi-story parking facility at the current jail site also hasn’t gotten approval from the Legislature.
Mahoi told the residents that they should be complaining to legislators. “I hear you. I’m for you. I really am, but you guys are complaining to the wrong people,” he said.
Officials did get the money for the 48-bed extension from the Legislature, and decided to take what relief they could get while waiting for funding for a new facility.
“Is it going to solve all our problems? No. Is it going to help us? Yes,” said Mahoi.
“We’re not getting 48 more inmates. We’re getting 48 off the floor,” he added.
Mahoi said he’d invited local judges to tour the overcrowded jail. So far, he said none had accepted his offer.
Mahoi acknowledged more problems at the facility than just overcrowding.
The newest building in the current jail, he said, is currently 22 years old and falling apart. The facility was also understaffed by about 25 people — 15 vacant positions and about 10 people out on workers compensation.
He also admitted that there was a morale problem after years of unsolved problems. “My staff doesn’t even want to come in to work anymore,” he said.
He expects, but is not sure he’ll receive, more staff to run the new extension if it’s built.
Then there are the mental illness issues that many inmates struggle with. He said the prison staff is not qualified to help them, though they try to get those inmates connected with outside help.
Mahoi added that many of the people who ended up wandering the neighborhood upon release were homeless, with no family to pick them up.
He did have one bit of good news for the neighbors: His staff had just reached an agreement with an organization called Care Hawaii, which had agreed to take such inmates “wherever they need to go.”
Additionally, if the extension is built as planned, the inmates there would have a somewhat different experience from those in the older buildings.
In conjunction with current correctional theory, Mahoi said the new facility would feel more like the “outside,” even having an atrium with a small garden area. The point of this approach to building, Mahoi said, was to facilitate inmates’ rehabilitation.
“When they’re given facilities that are more normal, it’s going to make their adjustment easier,” he said.
Still, Mahoi sympathized with residents’ concerns over the halfway measures that the plan represents. “We’re frustrated just like you folks,” he said.
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