About the Author
Robert Merce is a retired attorney. He served as vice-chair of the House Concurrent Resolution 85 Task Force on Prison Reform and was the principal author of the group's final report to the 2019 Legislature. He is on the Board of Directors of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and served on the Hawaii Reentry Commission.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center, better known as “O Triple C,” is a grim place. From the street you can see foreboding gray guard towers and long spirals of concertina wire sitting atop the jail’s chain-link fence, but these only hint at what’s inside.
Once you enter OCCC and the doors slam shut, you are in a different world. The buildings are old, the air is stale and the atmosphere is tense, particularly in the noisy and overcrowded module that inmates call “The Thunderdome” in a nod to the post-apocalyptic arena in which men in steel cages fight to the death before cheering crowds in one of the “Mad Max” films.
But OCCC isn’t a movie set, it’s an old, dingy, depressing and overcrowded real-life jail that houses, on average, 1,100 men and women, most of whom should not be there.
Jails are different from prisons. In prisons convicted felons serve long-term sentences. Jails were originally intended to house people serving short sentences as well as people awaiting trial who were dangerous or a flight risk. But that’s not how jails are used today. They have become 21st century poorhouses and asylums filled with men and women who are impoverished, mentally ill and struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.
OCCC And The Mentally Ill
In the 1960s the federal government adopted a policy to move mental health patients out of state-run asylums and into federally funded community health centers. It was a well-intentioned policy given the deplorable conditions in most state mental hospitals, but it didn’t work out.
There wasn’t enough funding for the community-based centers so they were never built. Mental health professionals also underestimated the difficulty of coordinating care for the mentally ill, and court decisions made it difficult to commit very sick people against their will. As a result, many mentally ill people went untreated and ended up living on the street.
The deinstitutionalization policies of the 1960s were the beginning of a mental health crisis in Hawaii that continues to this day. You can see it firsthand if you walk through Chinatown, Iwilei or even parts of Waikiki, Kaimuki or McCully.
The crisis has been well documented. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 68% of Hawaii adults with mental illness did not receive counseling or treatment, and the nonprofit Mental Health America ranked Hawaii 49th of 50 states in the number of mentally ill adults who did not receive treatment. According to the latest Point in Time Count, 25% of the homeless people on Oahu report that they have a mental illness.
The deinstitutionalization policies of the 1960s were the beginning of a mental health crisis in Hawaii that continues to this day.
Instead of finding an effective long-term solution to our mental health crisis, we have replaced the inhumane asylums of the last century with the inhumane jails of this century as the default place to “institutionalize” the mentally ill.
About 700 individuals diagnosed as severely and persistently mentally ill are admitted to OCCC each year, and 450 to 600 them will, at one time or another, be on suicide watch. At any given time, between 9.5 and 12% of the OCCC population is deemed mentally ill, and on average these people cycle through the jail about once every four months, with some cycling through once every six weeks.
OCCC is a terrible place for the mentally ill. It is noisy, overcrowded, violent and chaotic. Mentally ill prisoners are without their usual medication and support network, and they do not receive adequate care or treatment.
People with mental illness do not belong in jails. They need treatment and permanent supportive housing that leads to stability, inclusion and recovery.
OCCC And Substance Use Disorder
The criminalization of personal drug use and possession and the aggressive enforcement of those drug laws is one of the main drivers of our jail and prison populations. Under Hawaii law, possession of any amount of an illicit drug, even barely detectable residue in the bowl of a pipe, is a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
According to a recent survey, 18% of the homeless adults on Oahu have a substance use problem. When these people are arrested for petty crimes, the police search them, find a small amount of illicit drugs and charge them with a Class C felony. These people often end up in jail, and people who relapse and have multiple drug possession convictions are likely to end up in prison.
In 2017, then-U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a landmark report calling drug and alcohol addiction in the United States a public health crisis and said that addiction deserved the same commitment to treatment as we give to cancer or diabetes.
Rather than arresting and prosecuting people with substance use disorders, we should follow the recommendations of the former surgeon general: expand prevention and treatment services in the community, increase access to treatment, train more physicians to recognize and treat substance use disorders, integrate drug treatment regimens into the traditional medical system and mandate insurance coverage for legitimate treatment modalities.
OCCC And Poverty
San Francisco’s new prosecutor Chesa Boudin said during his election campaign last year that our money bail system “allows the rich to go free even if they’re dangerous while the poor remain behind bars even if they’re innocent.” That stark assessment of the American money bail system is fundamentally correct, and it applies to Hawaii.
Over half of the men and women who are in OCCC have not been convicted of a crime. They are presumed innocent and would have been released soon after their arrest but for the fact that they could not afford bail. Three-quarters of those who could not afford bail are charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies. Many remain in jail awaiting trial for weeks, months or even years.
On any given day, the state is jailing more than 1,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime. The cost to jail those people is $198 dollars per person per day, which translates to around $200,000 a day and $73 million a year. If we spent $200,000 a day on supportive housing for the homeless, community-based treatment programs and pre-arrest diversion programs, we would have fewer people in jail and we would improve public safety and public health.
Research has shown that spending just a few days in jail increases the likelihood of a prison sentence, reduces economic viability and promotes future criminal behavior. If the defendant is the main income earner and loses his or her job, the entire family can suffer. The defendant, and the family too, may lose health insurance, its housing, its car and go deep into debt just trying to survive.
Other jurisdictions have successfully limited the use of money bail and reduced their jail populations. In the District of Columbia, for example, 94% of defendants are now released pending trial without posting any bail whatsoever. Fewer than 12% are rearrested for any crime, and only 1 to 3% are rearrested for a violent crime.
Kentucky releases about 70% of its pretrial defendants without bail. Fewer than 10% miss a court date or are re-arrested while on release, and of those who are rearrested, only .5% are rearrested for a violent felony.
Hawaii should join the growing number of states that are reducing their reliance on money bail. We can safely release people charged with Class C felonies and below using appropriate conditions of release, supervision and monitoring.
When COVID-19 resurged on Oahu in August, it found its way into OCCC — despite repeated assurances from government officials that our correctional facilities were safe, “safer than Costco,” and that the Department of Public Safety had a response plan that would prevent the spread of the disease and protect inmates and staff.
Over 300 inmates at OCCC have now tested positive for the virus. Though no fatalities have been reported, COVID-19 has made what was already a brutal existence in OCCC even more difficult. As of Sept. 7 — even after COVID-19-related early releases — it still housed 775 people. With so many people remaining in the jail, physical distancing is near impossible.
The Way Out
Each morning in Honolulu, newly arrested prisoners are led from the police cellblock to be arraigned before a judge in District Court. It’s a parade of human misery. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can divert low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system and get them the help they need. We can treat mental illness and substance use disorders instead of criminalizing them. We can build supportive housing for the homeless. We can end money bail.
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Finally, we have to stop the misuse of our jails. The state is planning to replace OCCC with a new $525 million jail in Halawa Valley that will incarcerate over 1,000 men, and a $45 million jail in Kailua to incarcerate the 100 or so women who are currently housed at OCCC.
Unless we think differently about jails and how we use them, the new jails will simply replicate the problems of the old one, and become another warehouse for those who are poor, homeless, mentally ill and struggling with addiction.
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