Gov. David Ige accepts environmental impact statement for relocating Oahu’s overcrowded jail
The project’s estimated cost is $525 million, which includes the cost of the new jail and relocation of the state’s Animal Quarantine Station in Halawa.
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Gov. David Ige has accepted the final environmental impact statement to replace Oahu’s overcrowded and deteriorating jail in Kalihi. It’s a move that brings the state closer to Ige’s goal of relocating the facility to Halawa.
However, the $525 million project to rebuild the Oahu Community Correctional Center at the state Department of Agriculture’s animal quarantine station could face challenges. Ige will need the Legislature to sign off on a funding plan next year, and key lawmakers said they are concerned the governor is rushing the project before completing studies that would provide a better estimate of the jail’s long-term population needs.
Advocates for reform of the the state’s correctional facilities have also been critical of the plan for a new jail, arguing the state needs to focus more on reducing the inmate population, including pretrial inmates, those in jail on misdemeanor charges and inmates who are homeless and mentally ill.
The mounting political fight over what to do about OCCC — where there are inmates triple-bunked and sleeping on cell floors next to toilets — comes amid pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii to address what it has called unconstitutional conditions. Last year the ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice asking that it investigate “overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe” conditions at the state’s correctional facilities, including OCCC.
The state has wrestled with OCCC’s relocation for at least 15 years. In 2002 then-Gov. Ben Cayetano asked lawmakers to develop plans to close OCCC and build a bigger jail elsewhere.
Ige pledged during his 2016 State of the State address to relocate the jail to Halawa. On Tuesday he said during a news conference that his acceptance of the EIS for a new jail marked “another milestone in reaching that goal.”
“We all know that the existing jail at Dillingham and Puuhale is severely outdated and in disrepair,” said Ige.
OCCC was designed to hold 628 inmates and was modified to house 954 inmates, but as of Tuesday there were 1,222 inmates at the facility, according to Nolan Espinda, director of the state Department of Public Safety.
Espinda warned that the overcrowding makes the state vulnerable to lawsuits and federal intervention.
The proposed location for the new jail is also the location of the Halawa Correctional Facility, and building the new jail there would allow for greater efficiencies, officials said.
The Ige administration also intends to relocate the female inmates at OCCC to the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua, which the state is working to expand. OCCC houses about 140 female inmates.
Political motivation to move the jail has increased with the planned rail line, which will run near the current site in Kalihi.
“It frees up the land along the rail route to be used for new economic development, affordable housing and open space,” Ige said.
He hopes the new jail, which will require numerous regulatory approvals, will be complete by 2023.
He said he is looking at financing the project through general obligation bonds and perhaps a public-private partnership. A more complete funding plan is expected to be submitted to the Legislature when it convenes in January.
The new jail is expected to house 1,335 inmates. The design is based on jail population forecasts that the number of male detainees at OCCC will drop by about 25 percent, to 959, in 2026. The new jail would also house 336 low-security, pre-release inmates who are preparing to leave the prison system.
Bed space questioned
Lawmakers noted that two major reports based on the work of a corrections reform task force and a pretrial task force are due to the Legislature at the end of this year, and said those reports could affect population projections and other plans for OCCC.
House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said Ige’s approach is “very problematic.”
“They want to continue to build at the capacity that we are at. But that approach is wrong because we need to look at different types of alternatives to bail or bail reform or criminal justice reform before we invest $500 million to $600 million to build a new (jail),” said Luke.
Another concern is that as much as 12 percent of the population at OCCC is deemed mentally ill, according to EIS documents. In 2014 the Department of Public Safety also estimated that about one-third of the inmates were homeless, though the department told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Tuesday that it couldn’t provide an accurate estimate of how many were currently homeless.
The high rate of homeless and mentally ill at OCCC has alarmed inmate advocates who argued that many inmates need social services, not jail.
“OCCC is the state’s answer to housing, and that is so immoral,” said Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons. “There are a number of people in there that are so mentally ill that they don’t even know their names. What the heck are they doing in there?”
Brady said the plan for a new jail “is not ready for prime time.”
“You need to figure out what corrections is going to look like for the next 50 or 100 years, and here they are rushing ahead with a huge facility,” she said.
Ige said that the design of the new facility will take into consideration best practices in incarceration.