A commission that oversees the Hawaii correctional system is again urging the Department of Public Safety to delay plans for a new Oahu jail while the state investigates ways to reduce the inmate population. However, prison officials apparently plan to disregard that request.

The state has committed $9.985 million to studying and planning a new jail at Halawa to replace the aged and deteriorating Oahu Community Correctional Center, and Public Safety Director Max Otani said Thursday he will ask the Legislature for more money next year to continue that work.

“We have priorities here at the department, and one of them is to provide a safe place for inmates and staff to be at OCCC,” Otani told members of the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission. “The longer this project goes on … it’s going to cost more” regardless of how big it is.

Commissioner Michael Town, who is a retired Circuit Court judge, bluntly disagreed with Otani, replying that “I think the sense of this group and the sense of the community is, moratorium.”

He added: “I don’t want to put my friend Max here in a tough position, but it’s ‘Katy bar the door’ at this point.”

Vans with prisoners arrive at Oahu Community Corrections Center OCCC intake area.
Vans with prisoners arrive at the Oahu Community Corrections Center. Corrections officials intend to move ahead with planning for a new facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This is the second consecutive year the commission has asked the department to pause the planning for the replacement jail, and the second year the department announced it is moving forward anyway.

A 2017 report prepared for the state estimated the cost of a new jail at Halawa would range from $433 million to $673 million, with the most likely price put at around $525 million.

State lawmakers have not yet funded construction. Instead, Gov. David Ige’s administration has been studying the potential for a public-private partnership that would have a private developer raise the money to construct the jail, and then build it for the state.

The commission heard a presentation Thursday from longtime Honolulu lawyer Robert Merce, who has been an outspoken critic of the project. He said planning for the jail has been flawed, and warned that costs for similar projects on the mainland have been climbing.

“We don’t know how much a new jail is going to cost,” Merce told the commission. “We pretend like we know, but we don’t.” Construction costs have escalated dramatically since the $525 million estimate was made public, he said.

Merce cited the example of Utah, which broke ground four years ago on a new 3,600-bed state prison outside of Salt Lake City that was budgeted at $650 million.

Two years ago the state estimated the cost at completion would be $800 million, and the latest estimates now put the final cost at about $1 billion.

“So, how much is our deal going to cost?” Merce asked. “It’s probably going to be much closer to $1 billion, just like the jail in Utah.”

Merce also criticized the idea of using a public-private partnership to develop the new Oahu jail, citing the example of an Alabama plan to have private prison company CoreCivic develop new facilities. That deal later fell apart. 

Robert Merce 

The commission has been asking that the state pause the project to invite the community to suggest ways to reduce the numbers of people who land in jail. Members contend that will allow the state to plan for a smaller facility with fewer inmates that will cost less to operate.

Possibilities for lowering the jail census include reducing the numbers of convicts who are locked up for violating probation or parole, and authorizing police to issue citations for minor offenses instead of arresting people.

Otani replied the state intends to press ahead with the project. “We’ve been debating about the size — I think that’s the issue, the size and the programming involved — but the longer we wait, the more expensive it’s going to be,” he said.

“If this is pushed back another 10 years, and if the project is scaled down, it’s still going to cost more than what is planned for today,” Otani said. “There is a definite need to replace OCCC, and I think we can all agree on that.”

Carrie Ann Shirota, policy director for the ACLU of Hawaii, said her organization will be asking lawmakers next year to pause planning for the new jail, and to halt any further spending on consultants working on the OCCC project.

The ACLU wants the Legislature instead to focus on developing programs to divert people away from jail and into alternatives, she said, such as community-based mental health services and drug treatment programs.

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