Max Otani, the outgoing director of the state Department of Public Safety, has a wish list and a warning for the next governor of Hawaii.

The warning is that conditions have deteriorated inside Hawaii’s jails to the point that the threat of lawsuits and federal oversight of the facilities now “looms over the state,” according to Otani.

His answer to that threat is his wish list. He says all four of the state’s packed jails urgently need to be replaced with modern facilities, and the state must dramatically expand social service programs in the community — particularly programs for the mentally ill — to help steer people away from jail.

Otani’s time as director ends when Gov. David Ige leaves office next month, which means it will be up to either Democrat Josh Green or Republican Duke Aiona to address the problems and neglect that have dogged the state correctional system for many years.

Perhaps the most pressing issue for the system is what to do about the aging and inefficient Oahu Community Correctional Center. Both candidates say they support replacing OCCC, which is the state’s largest jail, but they are vague on exactly how they would go about it.

Oahu Community Correctional Center media day.
Staff walk the floor of a unit at the Oahu Community Correctional Center as inmates stand on the tier above.  One of the most pressing issues for the correctional system is what to do about the obsolete, overcrowded jail. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Gov. David Ige tried for almost his entire time as governor to convince state lawmakers to finance a new jail, going so far as to make his plan to replace OCCC the centerpiece of his 2016 State of the State address. But lawmakers never provided the necessary construction funding for the project, forcing Ige to adopt an alternative strategy.

The Ige administration has spent $10 million in planning and design work for a new jail, and devised a plan to contract with a private developer who would finance and build the jail on state land at Halawa. The idea was the state would then pay the developer for the use of the new jail in what has been described as a “public-private partnership.”

The official cost estimate for the new jail is $525 million, but critics of the project predict it will cost much more. 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, while others suggest the final cost could be $1 billion or more.

The state’s preliminary plans for the project call for 1,012 secure jail beds for pretrial and other inmates, and another 393 less secure beds to house convicted felons who are soon to be released.

However, the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission and others have argued the state should pause planning for the project to determine if the state can safely reduce the pre-trial jail population by diverting arrestees into drug treatment or mental health treatment programs in the community.

Aiona said OCCC is “another issue kicked down the road” by Hawaii Democrats, and there is “no question” something must be done about the aging jail. As a former prosecutor and a retired state judge, Aiona said he is making the issue a priority, and he said he is open to the idea of contracting with a private company to build and operate a new jail.

Gubernatorial candidates Duke Aiona and Josh Green shake hands after the Honolulu Civil Beat 'Know your candidate' event held at the Waiwai Collective.
Duke Aiona, left, and Lt. Gov. Josh Green at a recent campaign event. Aiona said he has no firm opinions about how large the new jail should be, while Green wants a smaller facility that is more focused on rehabilitation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Aiona said he’s also willing to consider various ways to reduce the pre-trial population that is held at the jail, which in theory may allow the state to build a smaller, less expensive facility. The size of the new jail “is negotiable,” and he has no firm opinions about how large the new facility should be, he said.

Green said in a written response to questions that he has already started planning for “a health care/homelessness/equal justice team that focuses on harm reduction and getting to the root causes of our systemic challenges. It will be led by mental health care experts and law enforcement leaders to guide our evolution of the penal system.”

“Violent offenders must be incarcerated. The state needs to do more to rehabilitate people with substance abuse issues, that lead to their non-violent crimes. Monitoring these individuals and getting them health care services is an approach that will decrease cost from incarceration and decrease cost from recidivism,” Green wrote.

“A large percentage of a new facility should be devoted to rehabilitation and reintegration so that people don’t leave prison with untreated mental illness or addiction, and immediately become homeless and prone to committing a crime,” Green said in his statement.

He said he favors “expanded use of electronic monitoring, reform of the probation system that minimizes economic disparities, and better community supervision with more parole officers and social workers (that) will decrease the pretrial population that are held in jail.”

Green also said he intends “to develop a smaller prison more focused on rehab.”

When asked to clarify that point — OCCC is a jail, not a prison — a spokeswoman for the Green campaign issued a second statement that “rehabilitation would be emphasized in any prison that is built. Reform of the Justice system means less pressure on people be held prior to that in jail settings.”

The oversight commission has flagged overcrowding and atrocious conditions of confinement for inmates at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo, and Aiona believes the jails on the neighbor islands also need either new facilities or renovations.

“The last thing you want is a consent decree. I’m definitely going to make sure that we don’t get a consent decree on this” in which the federal courts again oversee the operations of state prisons or jails, Aiona said.

OCCC was subject to a federal consent decree for 15 years after the ACLU sued the state in 1984 over overcrowding and inadequate safety and programs at the facilities. If the Legislature resists spending money to improve conditions at the neighbor island jails, “you give them a little bit of history” that includes the story of that OCCC consent decree, Aiona said.

Hawaii Community Correctional Center located in Hilo.
Particularly poor conditions at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo have been flagged as a concern by the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“This is why it’s imperative, this is why we need to do it now, and why we need to take action,” Aiona said. “It’s a matter of will and a matter of priorities, and I want to tackle this and get it off the table.”

Green said in his statement that “HCCC has to be improved to meet safety standards. I visited the women’s correctional facility and met with inmates — it also needs major renovations.”

Another controversy that flared up this year involves the state system for holding pre-trial detainees in jail unless they can post bail. That system has left some prisoners stranded inside the correctional system because they cannot afford extremely low bail amounts.

The Legislature this year approved a bill to overhaul the cash bail system by requiring that many non-violent prisoners who are arrested for misdemeanors and some low-level felonies be released without bail. However, the county prosecutors and others objected to the bill, and Ige finally vetoed the measure.

Green said in his written statement that, “We will ask the legislature to improve their bail reform bill to meet Hawaii’s needs.” He did not explain exactly how the bill should be altered.

Aiona opposes the bail bill, arguing that, “It sends the wrong message, and that’s exactly why we’re having this spike in crime that we’re having now, not only here in Hawaii but throughout the country.”

“None of that has to be in law, none of that. It just sends the wrong message. I have full trust in the judiciary and the prosecution and the defense bar in regards to getting that right,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with our bail system right now.”

As for people who are held in jail because they cannot pay even very low bail amounts, “You’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt, you’ve got to give credibility and trust to the people who are making those decisions, and they’re on the front lines,” Aiona said. “A lot of times, your critics are people who are not on the front lines.”

Aiona conceded it is possible some people had their bail set too high or are being held in jail when they shouldn’t be, but “I’m confident that the system can work itself out and those people will eventually get released if it’s deemed warranted.”

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