Volcanic Ash: Hawaii deal for federal jail could be win-win solution
We so seldom see fresh ideas from local government that it’s a shame when a good one goes to waste. Yet that seems the case with Rep. Gregg Takayama’s bill to explore state purchase of the underused Federal Detention Center near the airport to replace the decrepit Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi.
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We so seldom see fresh ideas from local government that it’s a shame when a good one goes to waste.
Yet that seems the case with Rep. Gregg Takayama’s bill to explore state purchase of the underused Federal
Detention Center near the airport to replace the decrepit Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi.
The measure sailed unanimously through the House and had the support of the Ige administration and Oahu Democratic Party but was abruptly killed in Senate committee with little explanation.
The state has long sought a replacement for OCCC, which is rated for 950 beds but has held hundreds more, drawing endless litigation about overcrowding. Gov. David Ige has estimated building a new jail would cost $525 million.
Takayama’s idea, partly inspired by Public Safety Director Nolan
Espinda, could potentially save hundreds of millions by instead buying the federal lockup,
an 18-year-old facility in good condition originally built for $170 million.
It has capacity for 1,200 but now holds only 400 —
including 160 beds leased by the state to cover the OCCC overflow. The bill would begin a formal process to find out whether the federal government is willing to sell, and if so, for how much.
“With Congress passing a federal prison reform act that is expected to reduce the population of their prisons and jails, I think it makes sense for us to put money on the table and offer to buy it,” Takayama said.
He believes the state could sweeten the offer by agreeing to house federal pretrial detainees; if a deal is made, the prime Kalihi real estate occupied by OCCC would be opened for community redevelopment.
Opposition has come mostly from prison reform groups such as the Community Alliance on Prisons and the Hawaii Justice Coalition, which argue it runs counter to the state’s own goal of comprehensive criminal justice reform to reduce the need for incarceration.
“We seek to shift the state’s spending priorities away from mass criminalization and incarceration towards
rehabilitation, education, restorative justice, health and human services,” said Carrie Ann Shirota of the Justice Coalition.
But the two ideas are not necessarily in conflict. While proposed reforms have merit, it’s unrealistic to think that bail, sentencing and rehabilitation changes would reduce our prison population of 5,300 enough to both eliminate the need for an OCCC replacement and bring home the 1,400 inmates we ship to mainland prisons.
Takayama’s bill wasn’t offered in opposition to criminal justice reform, but as a potentially more cost-effective way to house offenders who inevitably will require incarceration even after reforms are made.
It makes no sense to throw away the idea without at least making an effort to formally assess the federal
government’s willingness to accept it a possible win-win option.
Reach David Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org.