Gov. David Ige’s administration is testing the marketplace to see if private developers are willing to finance and build a huge new jail in Halawa, a project the Legislature has never been willing to fully fund.

But fallout from the pandemic has sparked more controversy around the jail project, with some corrections experts, activists and also some lawmakers arguing the state needs to pause and re-think the size and design of the new facility.

Other critics want to cancel the project entirely, arguing Hawaii locks up too many people, including the homeless and mentally ill. Critics contend the state could safely place many jail inmates in drug treatment programs or other community settings.

At the moment, the official plan is to replace the aging Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi with a more modern facility that would be built at the current site of the Animal Quarantine Station in Halawa.

Oahu Community Correctional Center guard tower near Puuhale Street. January 6, 2021
The Oahu Community Correctional Center guard tower looms near Puuhale Street. State plans call for replacing the facility with a new jail at Halawa, which could cost as much as $673 million. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Current plans call for a new facility with space for about 1,044 jail inmates, and another 288 beds for prisoners who are approaching their release dates. OCCC has an operational capacity of 954 inmates, but as recently as a year ago held more than 1,100.

The crowded conditions presented new problems during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the coronavirus spread rapidly through the jail.

Max Otani, the new director of the Department of Public Safety, told the House Finance Committee last month that “overcrowding makes it difficult to implement necessary protocols to contain the virus in our facility. The urgent need for the replacement and relocation of the current OCCC remains a top priority for PSD.”

State consultants estimated four years ago the new jail would cost as much as $673 million, which is more than half the amount Ige has budgeted for all state construction projects in each of the next two years.

With all of the other competing state construction needs — including new schools, airport improvements and roads — Ige has said he doubts the new jail can be built with public funds.

Max Otani, the new head of the state Department of Public Safety, said the OCCC replacement project will go forward. 

In an effort to sidestep that problem, the state Department of Accounting and General Services on Friday issued a “request for interest” by private companies in financing and developing a new jail and quarantine station. The RFI also suggests maintaining the new facility may be part of the final package.

Interested developers, financiers and investors are being invited to submit their credentials as well as their assessments of the risks and challenges involved in the project.

The state also hopes to identify technological innovations that would help with the project, and get advice on scheduling and technical information that may be incorporated into later phases of the procurement.

RFI responses are due March 12, and DAGS may use ideas from the RFI responses in future solicitations, according to the invitation.

But the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission, which includes former Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai and two retired judges, has urged the state to pause planning for the new jail. 

The commission cited the work of a task force formed by the Legislature in 2016 that concluded Hawaii needs to shift from a punitive model of corrections to a rehabilitative model.

That task force led by Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael Wilson warned in its final report that the planning for a new jail failed to identify the factors driving jail overcrowding, and failed to propose ways to safely reduce the jail population.

Otani told the commission last month that planning for the new jail will go forward anyway.

“I guess we were mandated to look into this, so we’re proceeding as scheduled,” he told the commission on Jan. 14. When questioned about that “mandate,” Otani later corrected himself.

“Not mandate, but we were given funds for the redevelopment of OCCC, so because we were given the funds, we’re proceeding as appropriated,” he said.

Shayna Lonoaea-Alexander, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said she is skeptical the project will be executed efficiently, and “I am worried about what the priorities are, especially during the pandemic.”

“Instead of signing blank checks for enhancing jail infrastructure, the state needs to stop its reliance on policing and jailing to address these real social and economic issues,” she said.

“When nearly half of Hawaii’s jail population is Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, when most people remain locked up because they can’t afford bail, when the reason why many people are led into incarceration is because they lack housing and health care and mental health services — we know that new jails are not a solution to these problems,” she said.

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