Kona-area prison still locked up in bureaucracy


A Department of Public Safety master plan called for a 359-bed prison to be open somewhere in West Hawaii sometime this year.

Former Gov. Linda Lingle in 2004 sought $500,000 from the Legislature to fund preliminary planning for the facility, which was to house prisoners for no longer than one year.

The idea went nowhere — there’s still no prison in Kona.

But someone in the state Legislature has resurrected the idea, and not even Public Safety Director Ted Sakai knows who.

The latest version of the House budget bill, HB197 HD2 SD1, includes a line item for design and construction of a new correctional facility adjacent to the new judiciary complex at Kona. There’s no funding attached to the line item.

West Hawaii Today contacted the department’s spokeswoman earlier this month. Toni Schwartz, in an email, said the department had no immediate plans to build a jail or prison in West Hawaii, although she said Sakai acknowledged Kona is a priority.

Sakai, in Kona earlier this week to attend a Hawaii County Council committee hearing, said his department didn’t request the addition, but he would like to see some sort of jail, prison or holding facility in West Hawaii eventually. About 40 percent of the department’s prisoners, now being housed at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo, must be driven to Kona for their court proceedings, either because the prisoners are from West Hawaii or because they live elsewhere on the island but are charged with crimes committed here.

“It makes a lot of sense to have a facility here,” Sakai said. “It would really reduce severe overcrowding in Hilo.”

In 2004, the prison system’s new 10-year master plan also described the Hilo correctional center as overcrowded and out of date. And that report noted Hawaii’s prison system had been overburdened since at least 2000, which is when the state began contracting with mainland prisons to house Hawaii inmates.

Sakai on Wednesday mentioned to council members the department’s ongoing desire to bring those inmates back to Hawaii facilities. The department is attempting to address the need for more jail beds by reopening Kulani Correctional Facility in Hilo, which the state closed in 2009, as a minimum security prison.

State Rep. Cindy Evans, D-North Kona, South Kohala, said she didn’t know who added the prison line item into the budget, either. She said she has been questioning, for years, the current system of housing West Hawaii prisoners in East Hawaii.

“Why are we spending that kind of money driving prisoners from Hilo?” she said. “It just seems so inefficient.”

She and Sakai said a facility close to the long-planned Kona Judiciary Complex would be a good location, because of the reduced driving time for department employees and inmates.

That planned site is adjacent to the West Hawaii Civic Center, on Kealakehe Parkway. That would put the correctional facility within walking distance of Kealakehe High School, the largest school in West Hawaii.

Sakai, reiterating his department hadn’t asked to put a facility at that location, said he would take the proximity to the school and whatever else is in the area into consideration when the time came to plan a facility.

Evans said the site near the Civic Center, which was selected from a slate of possible state- and privately owned properties, is better than the proposed site on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property next to the school.

“If this facility was down below, by the Civic Center, I’d feel more comfortable,” Evans said. “There will be a lot of visibility, traffic.”

Lingle’s 2004 prison proposal wasn’t the first for West Hawaii. In the mid-1990s, former Gov. Ben Cayetano suggested the state build a 2,300-bed prison in Ka‘u, claiming it would bring jobs to an area suffering from the loss of sugar plantation jobs. Opponents of the project claimed prison employees would catch diseases, such as tuberculosis, from prisoners and spread them to the broader community. Other concerns included the possibility that a prison — and an influx of employees’ and prisoners’ families moving to the region — would change the district’s rural nature, and worries that a prison would bring what residents described as urban problems, such as drugs and increased crime.

As of 1999, Cayetano was still planning to spend about $130 million to build a prison somewhere on Hawaii Island. In 2000, Sakai, who was working at the DPS director, said he was talking with Hawaiian Homes officials about building a prison on DHHL property in Hilo. No new facility was ever built.