The jail is supposed to be built on the site of the old animal quarantine station in Halawa, but the quarantine station probably won’t relocate for another two or three years.

For years the state Department of Public Safety has been planning a new jail to be built on the site of the state’s Halawa animal quarantine facility, and millions of dollars were spent planning the new jail. But that effort is contingent on relocating the animal quarantine facility, which sits in the way.

Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson said last week his office recently discovered the state Department of Agriculture never received the funding it needs to plan and design a new quarantine facility to replace the one on the site where the jail is to be built.

Sharon Hurd, chair of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, said she does not yet have a firm timeline for when her department will vacate the site where it now operates the animal quarantine station. But the old facility won’t close anytime soon.

“I would say it’s going to be two or three years because we do not want to move into the new facility until it’s done,” Hurd said. “So, the prison cannot start until, I think, maybe three years.”

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Building a replacement for the aging Oahu Community Correctional Center may have to wait for another two to three years until the state can construct a new animal quarantine station in Hawala. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Johnson said building the new jail to replace the Oahu Community Correctional Center and replacing the animal quarantine facility probably should have been packaged as a single project, but they were not.

“Since it’s two separate projects, that kind of throws a snag in,” Johnson said.

“I don’t know how far back that will push OCCC. I just don’t know at this point,” Johnson said.

Johnson said earlier this year construction of the new jail would ideally begin by early 2025 and finish in about five years, but the delay in designing a new quarantine facility suggests that schedule may be optimistic.

The current animal quarantine station was officially selected as the site for the new jail more than five years ago, and the state has spent nearly $10 million so far on site selection, environmental reports and planning and design work.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in a written statement Monday that corrections officials have been working with the Department of Agriculture “through every step of this relocation process.”

“The OCCC construction is expected to take years. Parts of the (animal quarantine station) can stay in operation while the construction begins,” she added.

Public Safety officials asked the Legislature for another $15 million this year and $10 million next year to continue the jail planning process and to solicit proposals from potential developers. However, lawmakers balked at that request, and provided only $10 million next year for planning and design.

Gov. Josh Green has also expressed doubts about the project, and said earlier this year he wanted to see “a better proposal.”

The Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, has been asking for years for planning and design money to move the quarantine station to a new site near the existing facility. Hurd said she believes her department submitted requests to the Legislature for funding for that work for four years.

Green agreed this past summer to provide $4.5 million this year to continue planning for the jail, and $3 million to state agriculture officials to plan and design a new quarantine facility, Johnson said. That money will come from $200 million in discretionary funding the Legislature provided for Green to use.

State consultants estimated in 2017 the total cost for the new jail would range from $433 million to $673 million, ranking it among the most expensive state projects ever. But Johnson updated that estimate earlier this year, saying the new jail will actually cost about $900 million.

He warned the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission on Thursday that further delays will make the project more expensive. Johnson estimated the cost of the new jail will escalate by 8% to 12% each year the project is delayed.

Further delays also involve other risks as conditions inside the run-down OCCC deteriorate, Johnson said.

“The more we delay, the worse the conditions at OCCC get, the more susceptible the state is to federal intervention and lawsuits, and the higher the cost of the facility,” he said.

The existing jail has an operating capacity of 954 prisoners but was holding 1,044 prisoners as of Sept. 18. The jail routinely resorts to holding three inmates in cells designed for two prisoners to cope with overcrowding, which means one inmate is forced to sleep on the floor.

Most of the men and women held there are awaiting trial for felony or misdemeanor offenses.

Animal Quarantine sign.  quarantine area is up the road about 1/2 miles.15 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The new Honolulu jail to replace OCCC is supposed to be built on the site of the state’s Halawa animal quarantine facility, but the Agriculture Department hasn’t received the funding it needs to plan and design a new quarantine center. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

Critics of the proposed new jail want the state to focus more on diverting low-risk offenders away from jail and into mental health and drug treatment programs.

Corrections officials have said the new facility will include more space for programming, but say the jail must accept all of the inmates who are sent there by the courts.

As for the specific design of the new OCCC, “we are at the point yet where we just have renderings, there’s no set footprint, if you will, what the facility will look like,” Johnson told the commission.

State lawmakers have argued over funding of the new jail for years, in part because many or most lawmakers would rather spend limited state construction funding on projects such as school improvements instead of a jail.

House Corrections, Military and Veterans Committee Chairman Mark Hashem said in an interview Monday that given the upcoming surge in construction activity in Hawaii, it makes sense to further delay the OCCC project.

Hashem noted the Navy is undertaking a huge dry dock project at Pearl Harbor, the Honolulu rail project is about to seek proposals from developers for its last major contract, plans are in the works to replace Aloha Stadium and rebuilding the historic town of Lahaina on Maui will be a huge undertaking.

Even before the Aug. 8 Lahaina disaster, there was talk of importing construction workers to handle the pending construction projects, he said.

If that happens the construction jobs won’t go to local people, “so we’re better off stretching these projects out so our local people will be employed for the next 10 (or) 20 years,” he said

Hashem also said be believes reducing the extreme overcrowding at the Hilo jail is a higher priority than replacing OCCC, and he wants to focus on developing a new jail in Kailua-Kona to reduce the inmate population in Hilo.

The state is about to open a new section of the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua, which will allow the female inmates at OCCC to move to WCCC. That should relieve some of the population pressure on OCCC, he said.

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