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Hawaii prison officials consider private partnerships

The “public-private partnerships” could help expand and modernize the state correctional system


One possibility being considered for the Oahu Community Correctional Center would be to contract with a private company that would build a new prison or jail and then lease that facility to the state to operate.

Photo/Hawaii DPS

By Kevin Dayton
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — State prison officials are asking lawmakers for $1 million to study the potential for forming “public-private partnerships” that could be used to help expand and modernize the crowded state correctional system.

Nolan Espinda, director of the state Department of Public Safety, said his department wants to seek out “professional advice” about the possibilities for using partnerships to design, build and perhaps finance prison or jail projects.

It might make sense for the state to enter into partnerships to execute projects such as building a new Maui jail, expanding the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua or replacing the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi, he said.

“We’re looking at what would be the possibility, what types of legislation would have to be offered up, what are the opportunities out there already in practice,” Espinda said. “The nuance of public-private partnerships in corrections is something that has not been explored in Hawaii, so we certainly owe it to the taxpayers to look at the possibilities for financing large government projects like this.”

One possibility being considered for OCCC would be to contract with a private company that would build a new prison or jail and then lease that facility to the state to operate. California, Arizona and Ohio have used that approach to develop new correctional facilities, according to state consultant Louis Berger Group.

It is difficult to persuade state lawmakers to commit what may be hundreds of millions of dollars to build new correctional facilities because lawmakers would usually rather use that money for more popular projects such as new schools.

That helps explain why the state hasn’t built a new prison or jail in Hawaii since the Halawa Medium Security Correctional Facility opened in 1987. Instead, the state spends tens of millions of dollars each year to send Hawaii inmates out of state to privately run prisons on the mainland.

The state spent more than $44.25 million to house inmates in Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., in the fiscal year that ended June 30. At the end of last month, the state held 1,580 inmates in that prison, which is owned and operated by CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corp. of America.

The department’s focus at the moment is on replacing OCCC, but Espinda said a public-private partnership might be of help in the future in developing new prison space in Hawaii to allow the state to move the inmates back from Arizona.

Espinda said he knows other states have successfully used public-private partnerships to develop new correctional facilities, but said he is not looking to any specific state initiative as a model for Hawaii.

Espinda also emphasized that any new prison or jail that might be developed through a public-private partnership would be operated by public workers, as all in-state correctional facilities are today.

It is unclear whether lawmakers will be willing to provide the $1 million to investigate the public-private partnership possibilities. House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said she has “multiple concerns” about the Public Safety Department’s request.

Luke said public safety officials have “kind of ignored” some of the input from lawmakers and the public about the plan to relocate OCCC, and said a task force is already working on a package of proposed criminal justice changes such as bail reform that could be used to reduce the jail population.

“Before building a new prison and getting into this new public-private partnership, we need to figure out what the census is,” Luke said.

Luke also said lawmakers passed a bill last year to create a new public-private partnership office, but Gov. David Ige vetoed the measure. She suggested that since Public Safety has no expertise in these kinds of partnerships, any study of the idea should be handled from a centralized office, as lawmakers proposed.

Prison officials said lawmakers authorized the state to pursue such partnerships in a section of state law that allows the governor to “negotiate with any person for the development or expansion of private in-state correctional facilities or public in-state turnkey correctional facilities to reduce prison overcrowding.”

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