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Neighbors of overcrowded jail in residential area of Hilo want it relocated

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Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center. File photo.

From a home in a residential neighborhood in Hilo, a woman could see a convicted sex offender, stark naked, exposing himself in a bay window of the Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center.

Residents told harrowing stories of police searching in their yards for escaped inmates and corrections officers chambering rounds in shotguns in view of frightened children going to and from school. They say corrections officers have 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 have witnessed numerous fights in the parking lot, even some between corrections officers. They have seen 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 have seen drugs being passed through windows on a Sunday afternoon at the facility.

Vianne Reis and her mother, Cheryl, residents of the neighborhood surrounding Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center, each testified in support of moving the jail during the Oct. 5 meeting of the Hawai‘i County Council’s Committee on Government Operations, Relations and Economic Development. Screenshot from video.

During an Oct. 5 meeting of the Hawaiʻi County Council Committee on Government Operations, Relations and Economic Development, these personal accounts were testimony in support of a resolution put forth by County Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung that calls for the relocation of the state jail, often referred to by Big Islanders as HCCC, or H-triple-C.

Resolution 559 calls for the relocation of the jail to an area that would provide additional space for the state Department of Public Safety to accommodate proper expansion of the facility and better support the needs of inmates and employees. It received a favorable recommendation from the committee and the council will consider final approval of the measure during its regular session Oct. 19.

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But the resolution does not specify any options for where a new jail could be relocated.

And, it is just a resolution. Any action to relocate the jail would have to be taken by the Hawaiʻi State Department of Public Safety, which operates the jail, and the department cannot take action without funding approved by the State Legislature.

The residents who live around the jail hope the state is listening.

“HCCC is a failed facility,” Vianne Reis said during the committee meeting.

Reis lives across the street from the jail on Punahele Street with her mother, Cheryl, who has lived in the home for nearly 50 years. They are tired of the abuse, neglect and bullying happening regularly inside and out of the jail.

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“We can’t keep pretending these problems don’t exist and there aren’t any solutions,” Reis told council members.

The jail also is overcrowded. As of Thursday, there are 277 inmates currently housed at 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 tour of the Hilo facility in August, the Hawai‘i Correctional System Oversight Commission issued a report in September pertaining to the overcrowding issue. According to Chung’s resolution, the report was released earlier than planned because the commission had “serious and immediate concern(s)” involving the safety of inmates and employees at HCCC.

The report also pointed out a lack of programs and basic services, the use of a shipping container to house inmates exposed to COVID-19 and a lack of recreational space. The commission said the issues are because of a system failure. It hopes Public Safety takes the report seriously and takes immediate action.

“The findings and tenor of the report appear to validate the community’s long-standing concerns that the location is no longer compatible to accommodate the needs of the inmates and workers, as well as the collateral impacts to the neighboring area,” Resolution 559 says.

Hawai‘i County Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung speaks about Resolution 559 during the Oct. 5 meeting of the council’s Committee on Government Operations, Relations and Economic Development. Screenshot from video.
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Chung called the commission’s report the “smoking gun” that prompted him to introduce the resolution.

Originally called the Hilo County Jail, HCCC started out as an 11-cell jailhouse built in the 1890s. Chung referenced “The Andy Griffith Show” while talking about the original structure, saying it was where you’d put Otis the town drunk to let him sleep it off before returning him to the community. Public Safety said by all accounts, the original jail was there before the neighborhood was built around it.

“Since that time, it’s far different now,” Chung said. “[The jail has] hundreds of beds and we’re still above capacity of what it should be, with no end in sight.”

The existing HCCC was constructed in 1978. It sits on 3 acres in a concentrated residential area and is close to two schools, Hilo Intermediate School and Hilo High School. The facility is comprised of three housing modules located on Punahele Street, which it fronts, as well as Komohana Street and Waiānuenue Avenue, just above downtown Hilo.

To help with the overcrowding, construction began in February on a new housing module at the corner of Waiānuenue and Komohana. The three-level, 48-bed 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, outdoor recreation area, dayrooms and utility rooms. The third level will house a mechanical room.

The Public Safety Department said construction is progressing according to schedule. The roughly $20 million capital improvement project with state funds is estimated to be complete by April 2023.

Resolution 559 — and the jail’s neighbors — say the new module still won’t be enough to solve the overcrowding issue.

“What a joke,” Lucille Chung, another neighbor of the facility, said during her testimony to the committee, adding that the new module is a waste of public funds.

“Even after the project is completed in 2023 — and assuming that the jail population does not move up closer to its pre-COVID numbers — the additional beds will still leave the facility at well over its capacity,” the resolution states.

Big Island Now asked the Public Safety Department if the new module would alleviate the overcrowding issue. The department’s response was only that it will provide additional cells and beds.

And the new module also doesn’t address the other long list of issues affecting the neighborhood.

Public Safety would consider moving HCCC and constructing a new jail somewhere else on the island. The department has in the past submitted a funding request for a siting study to not only relocate HCCC but also to build a new jail in West Hawai‘i. But the requests were not funded the state Legislature.

“Since the siting study for the jail’s relocation was never done, plans for a relocation could not be started,” the department said.

Benefits of a new jail would include improved 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 jail anytime soon is questionable.

A man works Friday outside the construction site at the corner of Waiānuenue Avenue and Komohana Street in Hilo of a new 48-bed module at Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center. Photo credit: Megan Moseley.

“A siting study and strategic relocation plans will need to be developed to arrive at a cost estimate for such a project before design and construction could take place,” Public Safety said. “However, the planning process and design will usually take years to complete. Therefore, moving the facility now is not possible nor feasible. Plus, the fact that we do not have the funding to undertake the siting study.”

Chung said during the committee meeting that the issues at HCCC and the concerns of the residents in the surrounding neighborhood have been going on 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 make a statement.

“I just wanted to see if my colleagues were willing to put their stamp of approval on some kind of affirmative statement by the county or the county council that it’s time to look for someplace else already for this facility,” Chung said.

There was no dissent from the other seven council members present at the committee meeting.

Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas called the situation a sad reflection of insufficient infrastructure in not just the county but in some state facilities.

“My hope is that through our council hopefully today supporting this resolution and passing it that it goes to the ears and hearts of those in the state who have the capacity and the resources to allocate, to finding a solution and moving this facility out of what is otherwise predominantly a residential area,” Villegas said. “It’s not an appropriate place for something like this for anyone.”

She also hopes to re-earn the trust of residents of the neighborhood by advocating for the jail’s relocation.

“I can’t help but feel frustrated and upset by what you’re having to go through on a daily basis,” Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz said. “But more than that, just feeling 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 community.”

She said she will do everything she can with her fellow council members to call on the state Legislature to make the matter a priority during the 2023 legislative session.

Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy called Resolution 559 a call to action. She said it’s time for the council and the island’s state senators and representatives to step up and fix the problems.

Councilwoman Heather Kimball, the committee’s chairwoman, said: “I think the state can do better and must do better, and I’m happy to support this resolution encouraging them to do so.”

Council Chairwoman Maile David said hopefully the resolution can bring some awareness to the issues at HCCC and concerns from its neighbors, spurring action from the state.

“I’m just really sad that we haven’t, as government, done something about it sooner,” David said.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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