Critics want officials to divert their focus to correctional reform.

The Department of Public Safety is now estimating that the proposed new Oahu jail will cost more than $900 million, a dramatic increase from previous forecasts after years of delays.

The department has been stuck in the planning and design process for the new facility since 2014, when the state first allocated $5 million for planning, followed by another $5.4 million two years later.

The project, which would replace the aging and overcrowded Oahu Community Correctional Center, is expected to break ground in 2025. However, critics succeeded in holding back funds this year amid a push to focus on criminal justice reforms instead of building a new jail.

Department of Public Safety director Tommy Johnson has estimated the cost of the new jail to be over $900 million. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Amid heated debate over the concept, the Legislature rejected a request for another $15 million for planning this fiscal year, but agreed to allocate $10 million in the following fiscal year.

DPS has asked Gov. Josh Green to provide $7.5 million for additional planning and design work this fiscal year from his $200 million in discretionary funds.

Makana McClellan, Green’s spokeswoman, said the governor has not yet approved the appropriation and has until the end of June 2024 to make a decision.

To date, planning and design for the project has cost $9.8 million.

However, Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson said last month that the estimated cost of the facility “is projected to be over $900 million.”

That would be considerably more than the last official cost estimate of between $433 million to $673 million, which was projected in a 2017 report from consultants hired to plan and design the proposed facility.

“The longer we wait, the more costs will be attached to the construction, exploration cost and material costs. We’re looking at 8% to 12% a year increase in costs,” Johnson said.

Supporters point out that the existing OCCC was poorly designed and has been deteriorating.

The old Oahu Prison was established at OCCC’s current Kalihi site in 1916, although most of the old prison buildings were replaced in 1950. It was overhauled again with much of the facility completed in the 1980s, but the new design has proven inefficient and plagued by security problems.

A facility with a more modern design would require less staff and would be less expensive to operate, corrections officials say.

Critics say the state should focus more on diverting low-risk offenders away from jail and into mental health and drug treatment programs.

“Hawaii is at a point where they can be a leader in correctional reform,” Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission chairman Mark Patterson said. “But right now, they’re too focused on the building part and not on the system.”

Demonstrators hold signs fronting the OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Demonstrators call for criminal justice reform instead of a new jail. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Green also has expressed doubts about the plan for a new jail, and earlier this year urged his staff to come up with a better proposal.

However, state Budget Director Luis Salaveria said the governor has signaled a willingness to steer a certain amount of money into the project.

“I can tell you that the governor has been supportive of making sure that the effort doesn’t stall,” Salaveria said.

Current plans call for a new jail with space for about 1,044 jail inmates, and another 288 beds for prisoners who are approaching their release dates. The old jail has an operational capacity of 954 inmates, but as recently as last week held more than 1,092 prisoners.

Johnson said ideally construction will begin in early 2025, and the new facility will be complete by 2030.

The prime consultant for the planning phase of the new OCCC project is Architects Hawaii. The Department of Accounting and General Services is seeking to select a private developer through the request for proposals process to implement the project.

The goal is for the developer to design, build, finance and maintain the project. But that plan has also drawn criticism.

“If we farm it out to a private company, the taxpayers are going to pay for it a lot more because whoever builds (and) finances it is going to make a profit,” critic Robert Merce said.

Oahu Community Correctional Center.
DPS has been stuck in the planning and design process for the new facility for nearly a decade. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Merce is a longtime advocate for reform in the state correctional system. He said building a traditional-style jail for $900 million is not in the taxpayers’ best interest.

Unlike prisons that are meant to be long-term facilities that house offenders who have been convicted of a crime, jails are designed to be short-term detention facilities to hold people who have just been arrested or waiting for a trial. 

Public Safety continues to pour money into the old jail for repairs and maintenance as that debate continues.

Johnson said that all his department can do at this moment is “continue to do patchwork on the facility until we can have a new, more modern facility” to meet the needs for both the inmates and the staff.

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