Big Island jail inches toward expansion

  • Proposed site plan for Hawaii Community Correctional Center (courtesy Hawaii Department of Public Safety)
  • Correctional officer locks the gate at Hawaii Community Correctional Center on Nov. 3, 2017. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)
  • ”The fishbowl,” inmate overflow area at Hawaii Community Correctional Center on Nov. 3, 2017. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — The Big Island’s only jail is going to get larger, but that’s just to better house its current population of inmates, not increase the inmate population.

That’s according to a Feb. 25 letter to Mayor Harry Kim, from Nolan Espinda, director of the state Department of Public Safety. Espinda said the agency is currently completing its draft environmental assessment, which is expected to be published in April or May.

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The agency doesn’t plan to relocate the jail from its current 4-acre site in urban Hilo — nor does it plan to add more land — in order to construct an additional 140-bed medium security unit.

“While we have many steps ahead to complete the environmental studies, gain project approvals/permits, complete the design, and eventually construct the unit, we are confident we will be successful,” Espinda said in the letter.

Hawaii Community Correctional Center, built to hold 22 inmates in 1975, has expanded to a design capacity of 206 and an operational capacity of 226. It’s currently housing 394 inmates, an agency spokeswoman said Wednesday. Operational bed capacity is a more generous measure of capacity created after certain modifications were made to the original design.

“Persistent and serious crowding continues to exist at HCCC, exacerbating physical plant operations, contributing to tension among inmates and diminishing program opportunities for inmates,” Espinda said in the letter. “In response, PSD is moving forward with planning for a new housing unit for inmates who are currently housed at HCCC to provide additional beds under appropriate conditions to address crowding.”

Espinda emphasized there are no plans to add more inmates.

“Developing the new housing unit will not increase the inmate population at HCCC beyond its current number,” he said. “Instead, inmates housed in spaces not suitable for inmates, would be accommodated in the new housing unit to be designed and constructed to State of Hawaii and national standards.”

A media tour of the facility in late 2017 showed crowded 10-foot-by-7-foot cells housing three inmates, one of whom had to sleep on a mat on the floor, while a 40-foot-by-40-foot enclosure behind smoked glass — dubbed “the fishbowl” — housed overflow inmates who also slept on mats.

The jail holds inmates awaiting trial as well as those sentenced to less than one year.

While all the state’s jails are overcrowded, the Big Island’s jail may top the list, according to state lawmakers, who are currently looking at ways to fund jail expansions on all the islands.

“The Hilo jail is probably the most overcrowded facility we have in Hawaii, but relief is on the way,” Rep. Gregg Takayama, a Leeward Oahu Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs, said in January.

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Lawmakers in 2016 approved $21 million for new inmate housing at HCCC. The money, which would have to be released by Gov. David Ige for construction to occur, would cover housing, a new support building and electronic and security upgrades for the overcrowded jail.

The current capital improvement budget contains a request by DPS for $8.1 million for new medium-security housing at HCCC.

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