A newly formed panel of prison and jail reformers that includes state Supreme Court Associate Justice Michael Wilson is wading into the controversy over plans for an expensive new jail at Halawa, and is urging corrections officials to start the entire planning process over.

The Correctional Reform Working Group wants the state to focus more on rehabilitation programs and alternatives to jail as a way to reduce the number of inmates who are locked up while they are awaiting trial. The panel also wants the state to abandon its plans to finance the new jail through a public-private partnership.

The panel is warning that “without timely efforts to change course, we foresee massive financial and programmatic failure ahead for the new jail.”

The group is scheduled to present its own proposal for a new approach to the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission on Thursday, and it may set the stage for renewed political skirmishing at the Legislature next year. The new facility would replace the inefficient and outdated Oahu Community Correctional Center, which is the state’s largest jail.

The state has already spent about $10 million planning the new jail, and the Department of Public Safety asked lawmakers this year for another $15 million to continue work on the project. But even more money will be needed beyond the $15 million just to finish the planning and pursue a deal in which a private developer will finance and build the new jail.

Lawmakers rejected the administration’s $15 million request last spring, with then-House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke saying she would block the planning money for the new jail until the state overhauls its cash bail system. The Legislature then passed a bill to revamp the bail system, but Gov. David Ige vetoed the measure.

Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Critics say planning for a replacement facility for the Oahu Community Correctional Center should start over. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The panel says in its report the controversy over the $15 million has delayed planning for the new jail, but opens a “brief window of opportunity.” The state should take advantage of that pause by starting over, according to the report.

The panel includes Wilson as well as Dr. Pablo Stewart, an expert on prison mental health systems; Deputy Public Defender Hayley Cheng; and Honolulu lawyer Michael O’Malley, whose son Joey hung himself at Halawa Correctional Facility in 2017. Robert Merce, a lawyer and longtime advocate for reform in the state correctional system, is chairman of the group.

There is general agreement in corrections circles that OCCC should be replaced, but sharp divisions over many other aspects of the project. The state’s preliminary plans call for 1,012 jail beds for pretrial and other inmates, and another 393 less secure beds to house convicted felons who are soon to be released.

Many hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. A report in 2017 concluded that replacing OCCC with a new facility could cost anywhere from $433 million to $673 million depending on the final design, but critics of the project predict it will likely cost considerably more.

The official cost estimate to build the jail is $525 million, which comes from calculations done in 2017. However, Merce has argued that based on the final costs of recently built correctional facilities on the mainland, the new jail will probably cost on the order of $1 billion.

“We want the Legislature and the governor to stop the planning on the new jail to bring the community and stakeholders into the planning process, and to sit down together, ask who really needs to be in the jail and why do they need to be there, and to build a jail that has fewer people,” Merce said in an interview Tuesday.

The report suggests that “the planning and design process for the new jail should begin anew, but with the understanding that the planning and design work done to date may be considered as part of the new process.”

The proposal by the working group urges the correctional system to scrap the draft master plan and population projections that have already been developed for the project, and instead adopt the approach outlined in the National Institute of Corrections Jail Design Guide and Jail Capacity Planning Guide.

The state should also abandon plans to use a public-private partnership to build the project, and instead use the more conventional approach of issuing state bonds to borrow money for construction, according to the report.

The Correctional System Oversight Management Committee will consider that proposal at a hearing that is set to begin at 9 a.m. on Thursday.

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