Oahu Doesn’t Need Another New Jail - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Nicholas Chagnon

Nicholas Chagnon is a senior lecturer at UH Manoa in the Departments of Sociology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. He teaches criminology and sociology courses, and researches topics such as police reform and gender violence.

Colleen Rost-Banik

Colleen Rost-Banik is an instructor at UH Manoa in the Department of Sociology. She also teaches sociology and creative writing courses at the Women’s Community Correctional Center.

It won’t mitigate the harm and violence of the current system in ways supporters of the idea claim.

Various parties have recently called for expediting the process of planning and building a new jail on Oahu. The current facility, Oahu Community Correctional Center, they argue, is so old and in disrepair that new jail construction is a must, and fast.

However, that narrative ignores that a new jail is already being built. The Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua is currently expanding by building a 176-bed facility to accommodate the 117 female pretrial detainees currently housed at OCCC. In addition to the new housing unit, the WCCC expansion includes an administrative building, a new intake and visitation center, and a parking lot. 

The state appropriated $40 million for the WCCC development in 2018 and construction on the three new buildings commenced in 2021. This growth is on top of the current 260-bed capacity of WCCC that routinely houses approximately 200 women. 

That’s a significant expansion of our prison system and jail capacity. Supporters of a new jail will argue that there are still 977 males detained at OCCC languishing in inhumane, overcrowded conditions. Building a new facility, they argue, will allow us to create a more rehabilitative jail environment, where restorative practices can be implemented.

Demonstrators hold signs fronting the OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Advocates for criminal justice reform protesting outside of the Oahu Community Correctional Center. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

It’s true that prisoners in OCCC are held in unacceptable, brutal conditions. But decarceration is the proper way to deal with this issue, not a new jail.

A new jail cannot mitigate the harm and violence of our current system in the ways supporters of the idea claim, for various reasons.

First, there’s nothing restorative about jails or prisons. Restorative justice can be used as a complement to traditional criminal justice.

But incarceration ultimately is contrary to principles of restorative justice as it involves separating people who have offended from their community. That means cutting out the supportive networks who play an invaluable role in holding people accountable and helping them improve their behavior. Restorative justice is fully effective if implemented as an alternative to incarceration, not in conjunction with it. 

Second, the personal costs of incarceration work against the objective of rehabilitation. These costs include loss of job, separation from loved ones, trauma and physical harm due to violent victimization, just to name a few. These consequences of incarceration make it less likely that people will desist from criminal activity and make it harder for them to reintegrate into the community upon release.

Supporters of a new jail may argue that jails are necessary to keep the public safe, most clearly through pre-trial detention of dangerous individuals. This is misleading due to the nature of our bail system.

This points to a third reason for not building a new jail. Using cash bail, as Honolulu still does, means that accused persons are detained not on the potential threat they pose to the community, but ultimately depending on whether they can produce the cash for bail or a bond.

Concerns about cash bail compromising public safety are in addition to the fact that it’s inconsistent with due process principles outlined in the Bill of Rights. In order for pre-trial detention to protect public safety, we must reform our bail system first.

Fourth, there is the issue of mental illness among our jailed population. Corrections workers have estimated that as much as 90% of people held at OCCC are mentally ill, substance dependent, homeless, or a combination of all three. As Alisa Roth documented in her book, “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” incarceration exacerbates mental illness, particularly when there are large dysfunctions in the prison system as there are here in Hawaii.

Diversion for people with mental illness is the more humane and effective way to address this problem. Honolulu has already met with some success in diverting people with mental illness from jail too. 

Incarcerating them is unreasonable and cruel.

Finally, there is the cost of building a new facility. Estimates for the construction cost of a new jail range from $400 million to $1 billion dollars. In a city with water, housing, and health care system crises, do we really want to spend a billion dollars on a jail when there are more humane and cost-effective alternatives for many of those accused or convicted of crimes?

Incarceration ultimately is contrary to principles of restorative justice.

Those calling for more and faster expansion of our prison system are playing a shell game, playing on reasonable and genuine concerns among the public while ignoring the ongoing expansion already happening and the harms that more incarceration will bring.

Many people will support the idea of a new jail because they regularly witness disorder and crime in Honolulu. They want public safety and order, and they deserve it.

A new jail may be intuitively attractive in that regard, but sometimes our intuitions betray us. That’s the case in the U.S., where mass incarceration has obfuscated and naturalized the violence and dysfunction of our prison system.

The best way to improve our community and keep everyone safe is to decrease our incarcerated population by addressing social problems with therapeutic, restorative, and rehabilitative practices when possible. A new jail will only divert us from that path.

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About the Authors

Nicholas Chagnon

Nicholas Chagnon is a senior lecturer at UH Manoa in the Departments of Sociology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. He teaches criminology and sociology courses, and researches topics such as police reform and gender violence.

Colleen Rost-Banik

Colleen Rost-Banik is an instructor at UH Manoa in the Department of Sociology. She also teaches sociology and creative writing courses at the Women’s Community Correctional Center.

Latest Comments (0)

I am sure most citizens would agree with this article but, I am not one of them. Sorry but I have no sympathy for law breakers and would feel safer if the criminals stayed the full term. Inhumane conditions may help deter criminals from returning to OCCC.

Westocohfd · 3 months ago

Obviously a controversial subject that deserves debate, study and hopefully conclusion. However, it's hard to imagine, in today's video happy society, where evidence is readily available for all to see, that there are many "innocent" inmates jailed only because they cannot meet bail. I would agree that there is a need for rehabilitation, but doubtful that it can be properly done here in Hawaii, just because the state has a dismal record of being able to do anything competent. As for building a new jail, maybe not. How about repurposing Halawa to become the new OCCC and sending all of those inmates to Arizona prisons where if costs half as much per head to house prisoners and where there is substantial rehab programs available. Finally, the concept of keeping felons in their community for their support network to help them, please tell me how? Broken families and other criminal networks supporting those convicted, does not sound like a logical solution. You are in prison because you are being punished for crimes against others, it's not supposed to be a vacation, it's a deterrent.

wailani1961 · 3 months ago

Thank you both, Nicholas and Colleen for writing this article. It is a topic that deserves much more attention.

Kathleen · 3 months ago

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