WASHINGTON — Hawaii is on the verge of getting a new halfway house for federal inmates hoping to transition back into the community, according to Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, who’s the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Hawk Sawyer testified Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in an oversight hearing that focused mostly on the death of sex offender financier Jeffrey Epstein and the bureau’s progress on complying with the First Step Act, bipartisan prison reform legislation that passed in 2018.

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, however, questioned Sawyer about the recent closure of Mahoney Hale, which was the Aloha State’s only halfway house serving federal inmates.

Senator Mazie Hirono speaks on election night at the Dole Cannery Ballroom.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono asked for assurances from the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons that Hawaii would be getting a halfway house. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The re-entry facility shuttered its doors after 29 years when the city of Honolulu purchased the building for a separate nonprofit drug rehab facility.

Hirono highlighted that the closure affected others as well, including Robin Kumabe, whose catering service worked closely with Mahoney Hale to recruit interns for a vocational program and was referenced in a Civil Beat article about the halfway house’s demise.

“Clearly once a facility like this closes it is not easy to get another one up and running,” Hirono said while she questioned Hawk Sawyer during the hearing. “Obviously these are really important to people in every state. So will you commit to reopening a residential treatment center in Hawaii?”

Hawk Sawyer responded that opening a new facility is a top priority for her agency, but that it was difficult to find a new provider once the city of Honolulu bought the building and “pulled away.” 

“We advertised three times for a new halfway house in Honolulu and got no takers,” she said.

The bureau floated a new proposal that should result in an acceptable bidder that will take over where Mahoney Hale left off, Hawk Sawyer said. Part of the strategy, she said, expands the services to cater to more inmates, which should make running the facility more cost effective.

“We’re very optimistic,” Hawk Sawyer said, “because we want that halfway house in Hawaii too.”

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