Gov. David Ige is asking lawmakers to put up $15 million next year to design a new jail to replace the aging and inefficient Oahu Community Correctional Center, but a top prison official says that still won’t be enough to complete what has been a drawn-out planning process.

The state has already spent or committed nearly $10 million on planning for the new jail, and documents filed with the Legislature indicate the administration tentatively plans to request yet another $10 million in 2023 to continue design work, according to state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran.

Oahu Community Corrections Center OCCC wide
Oahu Community Corrections Center in Kalihi is sometimes at two or three times the designed capacity. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If lawmakers agree to those funding requests, it would boost the total planning, design and related work for the new jail to $35 million. That does not include any funding for construction, which the state hopes will be provided by a developer under a public-private partnership.

Ige said in a December interview he is “not comfortable” with the amount being spent on planning, and said he is pressing corrections officials to look for ways to cut costs. One possibility is for the state to “borrow” or mimic design work done in other states on similar projects, he said.

Max Otani, director of the state Department of Public Safety, confirmed in an interview that the $15 million being requested this year still won’t be enough to complete planning and procurement for the jail. “It’s very costly at this point,” he said.

OCCC is the largest jail in the state, and a report in 2017 concluded that replacing it with a new facility could cost anywhere from $433 million to $673 million, depending on the design that is finally selected.

Critics of the project predict it will cost considerably more. Robert Merce, a lawyer and former member of the Department of Public Safety’s Reentry Commission, predicted last month the new jail will probably cost on the order of $1 billion.

Ige does not dispute that estimate, remarking last month that “I do think that we heard that that’s what jail facilities cost today.” The official cost estimate to build the jail is $525 million, which comes from calculations done in 2017.

Lawmakers and the administration have debated relocating OCCC from its current site in Kalihi for many years, but efforts to replace it have been moving so slowly that it will fall to Ige’s successor to actually build the new jail.

In the meantime, the project has become increasingly entangled in a political struggle over the orientation of the entire state correctional system, a debate that will again play out at the Legislature this year.

Entities such as the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission and the ACLU of Hawaii want the state to slow or halt jail development to consider whether the state can adopt other strategies such as community treatment programs to reduce the size and cost of the system.

Ige first made a public pitch to tear down OCCC and replace it with a new jail in Halawa in his State of the State address in 2016, when he described the existing jail as “severely overcrowded and in disrepair.”

He asked lawmakers that year for authority to spend more than $489 million to build the new jail, but the Legislature refused.

“The reality, of course, is that if you have a choice of building schools versus building a jail, we’re always going to build the school, right?” — state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran

Instead, the lawmakers provided $5.4 million in planning money for the project that year, which together with a separate 2014 appropriation brought the total for planning the new jail to nearly $10 million.

The Department of Accounting and General Services contracted with Architects Hawaii Ltd., and used some of that money to complete a site selection study and an environmental impact statement. Ige announced in 2018 that he picked the old animal quarantine station at Halawa for the project.

Contractors for the state also completed inmate population projections that concluded that if the system continues on its current trajectory, the new facility will need 1,012 jail beds for pretrial and other inmates by 2024, and another 393 less secure beds to house convicted felons who are nearing their release dates.

Lawmakers still have not provided any money to actually build the new jail, and Ige said he does not believe they will ever provide the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to complete the project.

Sen. Keith-Agaran, who oversees construction appropriations in the state Senate, explained the problem this way: “The reality, of course, is that if you have a choice of building schools versus building a jail, we’re always going to build the school, right?”

Rather than pressing lawmakers to finance the new jail with state funds, the administration is pursuing a public-private partnership that would have a developer finance and build the new jail. The state would essentially lease space in the facility, and staff it with public workers, Ige said.

Ige points out that all of the state jails including Kauai Community Correctional Center, Maui Community Correctional Center and Hawaii Community Correctional Center are aging and overcrowded and need to be replaced, but they must all compete with schools and the state university system for construction funding.

“That’s why I think that public-private partnerships for correctional facilities makes sense,” he said. “We’ve got to get the first one right. What we do here for OCCC, we’ll learn how to make it work for the other facilities as well.”

The administration expects to issue a request for proposals in mid-2023 to developers who will compete for the contract to finance and build the facility, a process that will play out well after Ige completes his second term later this year.

Apart from the financial uncertainties of the jail project is an ongoing, sometimes passionate philosophical dispute over how large the jail should be, and how the larger correctional system should operate.

The Legislature in 2019 created the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission with a mandate to — among other things — help the correctional system “transition to a rehabilitative and therapeutic model.”

That commission has been urging the state to pause planning of the jail to allow more time for  community members to propose ways to reduce the number of people who will be confined there.

That would allow the state to build a smaller facility with fewer inmates that will cost less to operate, advocates say.

Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission, shown here in 2020, has been urging the state to pause planning for the jail to allow more community input. Yoohyun Jung/Civil Beat/2020

The commissioners include two retired Circuit Court judges, former Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai and two other top administrators from the adult and juvenile correctional systems.

The thinking is that the state could adopt alternative strategies such as reducing or eliminating bail, or allowing police to issue tickets for low-level felonies so fewer people will be locked up. Both of those proposals have been discussed at the Legislature in recent years.

Other ideas include expanding community-based mental health and drug treatment programs and reducing the number of people who land in jail because of probation or parole violations.

A representative of the ACLU of Hawaii last month told the commission the ACLU will also ask lawmakers this year to pause planning for the new jail, and to stop any additional spending on consultants working on the OCCC project.

Critics of the jail project argue new jails are almost immediately filled because the criminal justice system routinely locks up people who would be better served by drug treatment or other social service programs.

But Ige said the current facility does not support the kind of community-based programs that the commission wants the department to establish.

“I think it’s about trying to think about what are the specific needs to be successful, and building a facility that can provide the support for the kinds of services that we need,” Ige said.

The old Oahu Prison was established at OCCC’s current Kalihi site in 1916, but most of the old prison buildings were replaced in 1950. Much of the facility was overhauled again in 1975, but that redevelopment was based on a “campus-like” design that was inefficient and plagued by security problems.

Fencing and other security improvements were added later. As the inmate population grew over the years, the state also built dormitory housing around the perimeter of the jail that was meant to be temporary, but is still in place today.

Today the facility is antiquated and manpower-intensive, which makes it expensive to operate, said Tommy Johnson, the public safety department’s deputy director for corrections.

The current jail has a staff of about 435, while a well-designed modern jail could be operated by 250 to 300, he said.

If the project moves forward as currently scheduled, a developer would break ground sometime in 2025, Otani said, and construction would take at least two years.

Otani said he and the commission agree the existing jail needs to be replaced, “but what to replace it with is where we’re hung up at this point.”

The correctional oversight commission is fixated on the size of the facility, but “the longer we wait, the more expensive the project will be, and the reality would be if we wait another five years, we’ll probably be paying more money for a smaller facility.”

Otani said tactics such as pretrial diversion programs and bail reform would be “good for the department” because it would reduce the number of people entering the system, “but until these laws get passed and it actually works and we see it over time … it’s still a theory at this point.”

The new facility should be quickly expandable if more beds are needed, but be versatile enough that if there is a drastic reduction in the number of inmates, the space could be used for community-based rehabilitation programs, Ige said.

That would include drug treatment and mental health programs, and the state does not have jail space now for the Department of Public Safety to provide those services, Ige said.

In the meantime, the state correctional system must accept all of the people the court sends to it, and the jails today operate at times at two or three times the populations they were designed to hold, he said.

Otani “is on the front lines,” Ige said. “The commission definitely has visions of what they hope to see in the future, and the challenge is that Max has to deal with what he has today,” meaning that he has to house the inmates that the court system sends to him.

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