The Hawaii correctional system is requesting another $25 million to pay for planning and procurement of a new jail on Oahu, but Gov. Josh Green has told his staff to come up with “a better proposal.”

The state has already spent $10 million on planning the new facility, which would replace the aging and inefficient Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi. Lawmakers last year blocked a similar request for additional planning money for the project, saying the state should reform its cash bail system before constructing a large new jail.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke was instrumental in stopping the request for additional planning money when she was chairwoman of the House Finance Committee last year, and Green said he has discussed the plans for a new jail with her.

“She and I want to be on the same page obviously on this kind of thing. We think that we should know what our true belief system of who should be in prison is before we built the new prison,” Green told reporters Wednesday.

Oahu Community Correctional Center media day.
Most agree the existing OCCC was poorly designed and is far less efficient than a modern new facility would be. But there are differences over how to resolve the problem. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

A 2017 report prepared for the state estimated building a new jail at Halawa would cost $433 million to $673 million, but critics of the project have warned the new jail could end up costing as much as $1 billion in the end.

“There’s going to be some prison and justice reform, we hope, right now,” Green said. “I don’t want to see people incarcerated for minor drug offenses. I think people should only really be in prison for violent crimes, with very few other exceptions.”

“We don’t think that a $1 billion prison is the right move in a state and an era where we need to build housing, so I would much rather build a much lower impact prison, and I have actually tasked my public safety directors and our health professionals to give me a better proposal,” he added.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz referred requests for more information about Green’s new instructions to the governor’s office.

The jail project has been the subject of much debate in recent years. Corrections officials agree the existing OCCC was poorly designed and is far less efficient than a modern new facility would be. However, critics of the project say the state needs to focus more on rehabilitation of prisoners, and on diverting offenders into mental health and drug treatment programs instead of jail.

Department of Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson made a case for the jail project in a budget presentation Thursday to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“If we are able to build a new facility, it can be built to be more efficient,” he said, adding that the state would be able to use fewer corrections officers, which would help ease staffing shortages and reduce overtime costs.

Johnson also said lawmakers’ decision last year to split off state law enforcement functions from the department and create a new Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will help foster a “program and treatment and reentry model.” A new facility will also help with that, he said.

He said he will meet with Green on Friday to discuss prison reform, and lawmakers next week to discuss planning of the new jail. “To be perfectly frank, we haven’t set any planning and design yet because we need to talk about program space and bed space,” he said.

“When we talk about a facility of 1,000 beds, I don’t want people to think we’re talking about 1,000 hard beds,” Johnson told senators. “No, we’re talking about a very small number of hard-bed cells for the folks who initially come in, those who may be high (and) disciplinary issues.

“The vast majority of the beds will be dormitory-style beds, with a separate additional furlough center like Laumaka where we can have more community-based beds for people going in and out of the facility,” he said.

The Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission was told at a 2021 briefing that if the state’s criminal justice system continues on its current trajectory, by 2024 the new jail will need 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.

OCCC was holding 1,089 prisoners as of Jan. 9, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Barbed wire fencing frames a guard tower located at OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Corrections officials say the Oahu Community Correctional Center needs to be replaced, but the cost is a concern. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

However, a consultant who was hired to review the jail population explained the state could reduce its future jail population by hundreds of inmates if it were to make certain changes to the criminal justice system, such as reducing the number of people held at the jail for probation and parole violations.

Another step that could reduce the jail population is eliminating cash bail for certain minor offenses, the consultant said. Former Gov. David Ige vetoed a bill last year that was intended to do that.

“The prison is going to have to be built in a way that does restorative justice, and that we can afford, and it has to have these mental health care services,” Green said. “Otherwise, we’re just spinning our wheels. In my term we’re not going to spin our wheels.”

Johnson said his vision for the new corrections and rehabilitation department involves intervening before inmates are released to ensure they have social security and ID cards, or determine if they qualify for veterans benefits, welfare Medicaid or Medicare, or federal SNAP benefits.

The idea is all of those applications will be submitted before the inmates walk out the door “so they come out better prepared than they do today,” he said.

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