The Senate proposed spending $25 million to plan and solicit bids to replace the aging Oahu Community Correctional Center. The House offered nothing.

The yearslong debate over what to do about the outdated and crowded Oahu Community Correctional Center has emerged as a hot issue after the state Senate earmarked $25 million to plan and solicit proposals for a replacement.

The state House has so far declined to put any money for a new jail in its budget proposal, and House Speaker Scott Saiki said Thursday he is not certain there is even consensus among state political leaders on where a new jail should be built.

If the new jail is to be funded, the House and Senate will have to agree in the days ahead on how much money to provide for the project. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on May 4.

Complicating the issue, Gov. Josh Green said in January that he had instructed his staff to come up with “a better proposal” than the plan the state has been pursuing.

Demonstrators hold signs fronting the OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Demonstrators protested outside the Oahu Community Correctional Center last year. Corrections officials warn that conditions at the jail have become so bad that the state could be sued, or the federal government could force improvements. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Green said he expects to see “criminal justice reform” move forward in Hawaii.

“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,” he said.

OCCC is the state’s largest jail, and the state Department of Public Safety has been publicly warning that conditions at the overcrowded facility have become so bad that they raise “health, safety, and conditions of confinement issues.”

A recent newsletter published by the department to promote the jail project went so far as to warn that if the state fails to act, there is “risk of U.S. Department of Justice intervention, court-imposed fines, along with lawsuits from individuals and advocacy groups.”

“Failure to act could also subject the State of Hawaii to direct federal oversight, thereby relinquishing control of OCCC,” according to the department.

The department has been lobbying and actively planning for a new jail for at least the last seven years. Preliminary cost estimates ranged from $433 million for a low-rise facility to $673 million for a high-rise structure.

The official cost estimate is $525 million, which comes from calculations done in 2017, but critics of the project estimate the actual cost could end up as high as $1 billion.

Whatever the cost, the project will be so expensive that many doubt the Legislature will ever put up the money to finance it. Instead, the plan is to select a developer to both finance, build and maintain the jail. The state would pay for the use of the facility.

Public Safety has already spent $10 million planning for the new jail, and chosen a site for the new facility at the former Animal Quarantine Station in Halawa. In 2021 the department issued a request for interest to identify companies interested in developing the project.

Lawmakers last year rejected the department’s request for an additional $25 million to continue work on the project. Public Safety officials say they need that money to continue planning the jail, to prepare a request for proposals to select a developer and to hire a consultant to oversee construction.

Then-House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said last year she would block funding for the new jail until the state overhauls its cash bail system, and the funding was never approved.

Luke has since moved up to become lieutenant governor, which essentially cleared the way for another attempt to fund the jail. The budget that Gov. David Ige prepared just before leaving office late last year once again requested $25 million to continue planning and design work for the project.

But the House included nothing for a new jail in its proposed budget this year, and it is unclear if Green is ready to move ahead with the jail plan. His office office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday or Friday.

Oahu Community Correctional Center Tour 2019 Module 2 Health and Mental Health, Sgt Claude Harris closes a door to cell.
Sgt. Claude Harris closes a door to a cell in Oahu Community Correctional Center’s Module 2 during a 2019 tour of the facility. There is general agreement the state’s largest jail is rundown, inefficient, and conditions are unacceptable there. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz announced on March 30 he would insert a $1 appropriation for the jail into the Senate budget proposal as a placeholder, which would allow lawmakers to decide later how much money to actually commit to the project.

In fact, the proposed budget that was voted on by the full Senate on April 11 includes the full $25 million that corrections officials had requested for the jail.

The House and Senate have only next week to agree on which projects will be funded — including whether the planning money for the jail will be provided — before a key deadline on Friday to put the finishing touches on all fiscal bills.

Critics of the Department of Public Safety plan for a new jail say the development of a major new correctional facility represents a rare opportunity to steer the state away from a punitive model of corrections and into a more rehabilitative and therapeutic approach.

Observers including the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission have also questioned the plan to have a developer finance the project, pointing out it is unclear how long the state will make payments on the new facility or how much that will ultimately cost.

But the Department of Public Safety says it is designing the new facility with ample space for programs as part of its shift to a more rehabilitative approach to corrections.

And the department warns that delays have already increased the cost of the new jail.

“Continuing to withhold OCCC funding and delaying development will increase OCCC’s design and construction costs by several million dollars a month,” according to the department.

The current plan for the new jail calls 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.

As of last Monday, the jail held 1,087 prisoners, according to the Public Safety Department.

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