KALIHI, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Officials estimate one in every three people who are incarcerated at O'ahu Community Correctional Center is homeless.
"Close to 30% of the individuals who walk in our door daily are homeless," said Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai.
He added that the data is based on an estimate provided by intake officials at OCCC. "We have observed over the past few years an increase in the number of homeless individuals coming through community correctional facilities on all islands. OCCC just happens to be the biggest one, but we believe this is a statewide issue."
DPS officials confirm the current population at OCCC is 1,273 in a space designed with a capacity for 628. Sakai says one of the challenges jails face with an influx in homeless people is many have mental health issues and need special housing.
"We're not designed to handle this kind of population, we're already overcrowded. Our facilities are old and our resources are limited," Sakai said. "At OCCC, modules designed for 36 have 100 inmates in that space. The staff has to be concerned about safety all the time."
Hawaii News Now was granted access inside OCCC during inmate intake. Only individuals who agreed to share their personal experience were recorded, including one homeless man who has been incarcerated several times in the past few years. He admitted to using drugs or alcohol on a daily basis, and says he has also been a patient at Hawai'i State Hospital, where he was treated for manic behavior.
Jail officials say many of the homeless they process during intake admit to substance abuse and a majority express or are identified as having mental health issues.
"It's a real difficult issue for us, but we have to manage it. It's our responsibility," Sakai said.
Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai says he understands why critics say if the state doesn't start building affordable housing, officials will need to start building more cells.
"I know that we cannot continue to use our jails and prisons as adjunct homeless shelters," Sakai said.
According to Sakai, most homeless inmates are in for relatively short sentences on misdemeanor charges, but can easily fall into a vicious cycle.
"Our staff report they keep a list of what they call frequent fliers -- people who in the past three to five years have been in more than 10 times into our system and last I saw, there are 200 - 300 names on this list.
"You would think you don't want to go back to jail so you would try to do something different to not come back, but I do understand for some people this is better than what they have outside," said Frank Young, an Assessment & Classification Unit Supervisor at OCCC.
In addition to three meals everyday, inmates also have access to medical and mental health care.
"When they walk out they're actually in pretty good shape. They're on medication and their minor health issues have been taken care of, but when they walk out -- many times they walk out into the same situation that brought them to us in the first place and this is the gap we have to close," Sakai said.
Sakai wants to partner with homeless service providers, along with state and county programs, to create a better transition between time served and a homeless inmate's release.
"They either meet them at the door or something, so that we can take them to services and they can continue their medication, their treatment, and they can get a decent shelter to go to. We're part of it, we're definitely part of it -- but we have to make sure we work in close concert with service providers and the state offices and the county coordinators to make sure that the needs of the homeless population are taken care of, because if we can do that more effectively, I think that benefits the community," Sakai said.
Officials say it costs on average $127 a day to incarcerate someone. The estimate covers medical, food and security expenses.