From a house in a residential area of Hilo, a woman could see a naked, convicted sex offender exposing himself in a bay window at the Hawai’i Community Correctional Center.
Residents told harrowing stories of police searching their yards for escaped inmates and corrections officers chambering shotguns at the sight of frightened children walking to and from school. They say prison officers swore at them for asking to keep the noise down and at others for simply walking or running on the shoulder of Punahele Street.
They say they witnessed many fights in the parking lot, even between prison officers. They saw riots and fires, and visitors having sex, doing drugs and drinking at all hours of the day in a vacant lot across the street. They also saw drugs coming through the windows on a Sunday afternoon at the facility.
At an Oct. 5 meeting of the Hawaii County Council’s Committee on Government Operations, Relations, and Economic Development, these personal testimonies testified in support of a resolution presented by the council’s vice chairman. of the county, Aaron Chung, who calls for the relocation of the state prison, often referred to by Big Islanders as HCCC, or H-triple-C.
Resolution 559 calls for the relocation of the prison to an area that would provide additional space for the State Department of Public Safety to allow for the proper expansion of the facility and better meet the needs of inmates and employees. It received a favorable recommendation from the committee and the board will consider final approval of the measure when it ordinary session of October 19.
But the resolution does not specify any options as to where a new prison could be moved.
And that’s just a resolution. Any action to move the prison would have to be taken by the Hawaii State Department of Public Safety, which operates the prison, and the department cannot take action without funding approved by the state legislature. .
Residents who live around the prison hope the state is listening.
“The HCCC is a failing facility,” Vianne Reis said during the committee meeting.
Reis lives across from the Punahele Street Jail with her mother, Cheryl, who has lived in the house for almost 50 years. They are fed up with the abuse, neglect and bullying that happens regularly inside and outside of prison.
“We can’t keep pretending that these problems don’t exist and there are no solutions,” Reis told council members.
The prison is also overcrowded. As of Thursday, there were 277 inmates currently housed in the jail, which has a design capacity of 206 and an operating capacity of 226, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
After a visit to the Hilo facility in August, the Hawaii Corrections Oversight Commission released a report in September regarding the overcrowding problem. According to Chung’s resolution, the report was released ahead of schedule because the commission had “serious and immediate concerns” about the safety of HCCC detainees and employees.
The report also highlighted a lack of basic programs and services, the use of a shipping container to house inmates exposed to COVID-19, and a lack of recreational space. The commission said the problems are due to a system failure. He hopes Public Safety will take the report seriously and take immediate action.
“The report’s findings and content appear to validate the community’s long-standing concerns that the location is no longer compatible to meet the needs of inmates and workers, as well as the collateral impacts on the nearby area,” states resolution 559.
Chung called the commission’s report “irrefutable evidence” that prompted him to introduce the resolution.
Originally called the Hilo County Jail, HCCC began as an 11-cell jail built in the 1890s. Chung referenced “The Andy Griffith Show” while talking about the original structure, saying it was where you would put Otis the city drunk to let him sleep before sending him back to the community. Public Safety obviously said the original prison was there before the neighborhood was built around it.
“Since that time, it’s quite different now,” Chung said. “[The jail has] hundreds of beds and we’re still over capacity than it should be, with no end in sight.
The existing HCCC was built in 1978. It sits on 3 acres in a concentrated residential area and is near two schools, Hilo Intermediate School and Hilo High School. The facility is made up of three housing modules located on Punahele Street, which it faces, as well as Komohana Street and Waiānuenue Avenue, just above downtown Hilo.
To help with overcrowding, construction began in February on a new housing module at the corner of Waiānuenue and Komohana. The 48-bed, three-level unit is about 35% complete, according to Public Safety. The first and second levels will each have 12 cells with two beds per cell. The first level will also include a staff office, an outdoor recreation area, common rooms and technical rooms. The third level will house a mechanical room.
The Public Safety Department said construction is progressing on schedule. The approximately $20 million capital improvement project with public funds is expected to be completed by April 2023.
Resolution 559 – and the prison’s neighbors – say the new module still won’t be enough to solve the overcrowding problem.
“What a joke,” said Lucille Chung, another neighbor of the facility, during her testimony before the committee, adding that the new module is a waste of public funds.
“Even after the project is completed in 2023 – and assuming the prison population does not approach its pre-COVID numbers – additional beds will still leave the facility well beyond its capacity,” the resolution states.
Big Island Now asked the Department of Public Safety if the new pod would solve the overcrowding problem. The Ministry’s response was only that it will provide additional cells and beds.
And the new module doesn’t address the other long list of issues affecting the neighborhood either.
Public Security is reportedly considering moving HCCC and building a new prison elsewhere on the island. The department has in the past submitted a request for funding for a site survey not only to relocate the HCCC, but also to build a new prison in western Hawai’i. But the demands were not funded by the state legislature.
“Since the site survey for the relocation of the prison was never completed, relocation plans could not be initiated,” the department said.
Benefits of a new prison would include better conditions for inmates, improved security, safer and more efficient operations, improved program services, and a more energy-efficient facility. But the feasibility of moving the prison anytime soon is questionable.
“A site survey and strategic relocation plans will need to be developed to arrive at a cost estimate for such a project before design and construction can take place,” Public Safety said. “However, the planning process and design will usually take years. Therefore, moving the installation now is not possible or feasible. In addition, the fact that we do not have the funding to undertake the implementation study.
Chung said at the committee meeting that the problems at the HCCC and the concerns of residents in the surrounding neighborhood have been going on for a long time. The resolution speaks for itself.
He said he doesn’t have the solutions to the problems plaguing the jail and its neighbors, but it’s time for the county to step up and issue a statement.
“I just wanted to see if my colleagues were willing to put their stamp of approval on some sort of affirmative statement from the county or the county council that it’s time to look elsewhere already for this facility,” Chung said.
There were no dissents from the other seven Board members present at the committee meeting.
Councilman Rebecca Villegas called the situation a sad reflection of insufficient infrastructure not just in the county, but in some state facilities.
“I hope that through our council, hope today, by supporting this resolution and passing it, it will go to the ears and hearts of those in the state who have the capacity and the resources to allocate, find a solution and to move this facility out of what is otherwise primarily a residential area,” Villegas said. “It’s not a suitable place for something like this for anyone.”
She also hopes to regain the trust of local residents by advocating for the prison to be moved.
“I can’t help but feel frustrated and overwhelmed with what you have to go through on a daily basis,” Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz said. “But more than that, I just feel a huge sense of outrage that the state has failed our community. Their lack of prioritization, their lack of action has really led to major negative impacts on the community.
She said she would do whatever she could with her fellow council members to ask the state legislature to make the issue a priority during the 2023 legislative session.
Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy called Resolution 559 a call to action. She said it was time for the council and the island’s state senators and representatives to step in and resolve the issues.
Councilor Heather Kimball, chair of the committee, said, “I believe the state can and should do better, and I am happy to support this resolution encouraging them to do so.”
Council Chairperson Maile David said she hopes the resolution can raise awareness of the HCCC’s problems and the concerns of its neighbours, spurring state action.
“I’m really sad that we haven’t, as a government, done something sooner,” David said.