State asks for public input on future of OCCC

State asks for public input on future of OCCC

KALIHI (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Oahu Community Correctional Center has been overcrowded for years, but state officials are finally taking the first steps to address the issue.

On Wednesday, community members are invited to weigh in on a proposal to develop a new jail facility.

"This is a chance for all interested parties to share suggestions and ask questions on what they'd like to see fully explored for the future of OCCC,"
said Nolan Espinda, the director of the state Department of Public Safety.

DPS officials say there are routinely twice as many inmates in an OCCC cell as there should be.

"It is currently grossly overcrowded, housing approximately 1,200 inmates on any given day when the capacity of the institution is 954," Espinda said. "Not only is it overcrowded, but the infrastructure as you might expect at such an aged facility is really deteriorating. It was poorly designed and that poor design has added to an operational and personnel cost in excess of 33 percent of what I would guess we should actually be doing with a well-designed and modern facility."

In addition to safety and security concerns, DPS officials say OCCC's overcrowding has impacted attendance for corrections officers, who are often overwhelmed with more inmates than they should be assigned to.

They say it has also put the state at risk of meeting all the Constitutionally-mandated services required of the jail.

"With the over-taxation of the infrastructure and the staff that work there -- it is a great challenge to be operating within fiscal responsibility and maintaining the level of services necessary for us to not be sued by the federal government," said Espinda.

DPS officials say more space is a must -- whether that's through renovation of the existing 16-acre site or replacing the 100-year-old jail with a brand new facility somewhere else.

There are no current estimates for a redesign, but relocating to a new facility will be costly.

"The price tag for that, which identified the Halawa Correctional Facility as the lone site, was $645 million," Espinda said.

Several groups have already come forward with suggestions, including Life of the Land, which has expressed concerns about the procedures the state
has followed in announcing its plans.

"How can the public comment when they don't know whether it's going to be built from Waianae to the North Shore to Kailua to Halawa? It's very hard to make a comment at this point," said Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land.

Curtis says the state Department of Accounting and General Services should have identified all possible sites and listed them in the Environmental Impact Statement scoping meeting notice.

"Not identifying the sites means that it's very hard for the public to participate and the whole purpose of an environmental impact statement is to
engage the public," Curtis said, thought he does have some ideas of his own.

"It should not be a dumping ground for the homeless, the mentally ill and for those who are too poor to pay bail. We need to figure out first who belongs there and then what kinds of services should be built," said Curtis.

Public Safety officials say every option will be considered.

"We want to be able to come up with a solution that is public oriented, with tremendous about of public input and best serves the people of Hawaii," said Espinda.

DPS officials say a new jail is a long-term solution to their overcrowding -- something that may take eight to 10 years to become a reality.

In the meantime, they're also pursuing short-term remedies, like a recently passed initiative to release misdemeanor offenders who are awaiting trial or serving time for non-violent crimes. It's an extremely restrictive program that's expected to roll-out early 2017.

The scoping meeting kicks off Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Farrington High School cafeteria.

Copyright 2016 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.