Hawaii lawmakers find themselves once again faced with competing measures on what to do with the overcrowded and dilapidated Oahu Community Correctional Center.

The governor, lawmakers, the state Department of Public Safety, prisoner advocates and the public all agree that the conditions at OCCC are abysmal and unsafe. Three people are locked up in cells meant for one in aging facilities, with the oldest building dating back to the 1910s.

For years, legislators have failed to come to an agreement on whether to build a new facility somewhere else or buy the Federal Detention Center near the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

Now, the governor is requesting $20 million from the Legislature as part of his executive budget package to either help acquire an existing facility or get the process started to build a brand new jail in the Halawa area. The entire relocation project would cost the state about $525 million, which the Legislature has refused to authorize in the past.

The state has applied for a permit from the city, which is scheduled to go before the Honolulu City Council on Feb. 19.

Oahu Community Correctional Center OCCC ewa tower. tour 2019
Oahu Community Correctional Center is in need of replacement or major repair. The Legislature is considering which way to go. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Meanwhile, some legislators this year want to ban the governor from negotiating with private contractors to develop prisons in the state, which would rule out the public-private partnership funding option that Gov. David Ige had been exploring for the Halawa location.

“Because of the cost involved in replacing OCCC, we believe a public-private partnership would be the best way to finance the state’s effort to alleviate overcrowding,” Ige said in a written response to a question about the bill.

At the same time, the public safety department wants lawmakers to approve the purchase of the Federal Detention Center to serve as the new OCCC, although it’s not clear the federal government wants to sell it.

“With security and safety of inmates and staff and relief from overcrowding being among our top priorities, it makes good sense to consider purchase of the FDC as a viable alternative to OCCC,” Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda wrote in a letter supporting the bill.

In the meantime, the Oahu jail remains overcrowded and in disrepair with no clear solutions in sight.

A Long Process

The planning process for OCCC’s relocation dates back to 2016. A newsletter from that year said the public safety department had already begun notifying key state and local officials of the need to replace the facility then.

Years of planning work — involving not only the public safety department but also private consulting firms — has already been done. The state Animal Quarantine Station site in Halawa was identified as the top location, an environmental impact study was completed and a plan, review and use permit application were submitted to the city.

Contact Key Lawmakers

However, the state had not figured out how to pay for the project.

Public safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz directed inquiry about the relocation project to the state Department of Accounting and General Services.

The $20 million the governor is asking for now, if used for the relocation project, would likely cover the project through the request for proposal and award process, during which the state seeks out potential contractors, said Joseph Earing, the planning branch chief at DAGS’ public works division.

That’s if the city approves the permit resolution on Feb. 19, he said. If it doesn’t, the state will have to regroup and plan out the next action, he added.

“At this point, we’re just waiting,” he said. 

The $20 million is “especially critical to address the increased requirements inherent with issuing an effective and successful solicitation for innovative project delivery,” the governor said in the statement. He then pointed again to a public-private partnership.

Ige was reportedly in talks with CoreCivic, a private prison operator that runs the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, for a possible public-private partnership for the OCCC relocation earlier last year. CoreCivic has been a real estate investment trust since 2013.

However, some lawmakers want to ban private prisons in the state. A bill introduced this session, if passed, would prohibit any private correctional facilities being established in Hawaii.

California, New York, Illinois and Iowa ban their prison systems from using private facilities in their states.

State Sen. Stanley Chang is the primary sponsor of the Hawaii bill. He said his intern — a Hawaii Pacific University sophomore — is really the force behind it.

“I don’t think rehabilitation should have a monetary price,” said Christopher Albritton, the intern. Private correctional industries put a price on incarceration and profit massively off of it, he added.

He said he convinced Chang to put the bill before the Senate. State Sens. Karl Rhoads, Kai Kahele and Russell Ruderman co-sponsored it. Sen. Maile Shimabukuro supported it. It was approved by the Senate Public Safety Committee Tuesday.

State officials have been considering trying to buy the Federal Detention Center for a few years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The state has been eyeing the Federal Detention Center as OCCC’s replacement since 2016, when the Legislature sought to have Hawaii’s congressional delegation help acquire it for state use.

Last year, state Rep. Gregg Takayama introduced a bill proposing the purchase. The House public safety committee chair said he supports the idea again this year.

“I think it makes sense to take a serious look at it,” he said.

This year, the proposal has been brought back at the public safety department’s request. The department already houses 140 state inmates at the FDC, Espinda said in his letter of support. The facility has a capacity for 1,200 inmates.

“The FDC is not new, but it is an efficient, vertical design which includes integrated, state-of-the-art surveillance and management technologies, accommodating all the necessary functions of a correctional facility,” Espinda said.

The governor said purchasing unused space there would allow the state to access increased capacity for the time being, though it would be preferable to have total control of the entire facility.

The bill to buy the federal center has passed the House Public Safety and Judiciary committees. It still needs to be heard by the House Finance committee.

What stories will you help make possible?

Since 2010, Civil Beat’s reporting has painted a more complete picture of Hawaii — stories that you won’t find anywhere else.

Your donation, however big or small, will ensure that Civil Beat has the resources to provide you with thorough, unbiased reporting on the issues that matter most to Hawaii. We can’t do this without you.


About the Author