East Hawaii News

Aging, overcrowded Hilo correctional center getting some help, but more is needed

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Cramped, cluttered and under construction. That’s the current situation at Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center in Hilo.

Inmates watched through the reinforced glass of their cell doors on Wednesday as members of the media toured the facility.

An unoccupied cell in the Komohana unit at Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center. Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now

It was one of several media tours the Hawai‘i State Department of Public Safety Corrections Division has been conducting this week of jails and prisons around the state. The tours also included the Hale Nani Reintegration Center and Kulani Correctional Facility in Hilo.

Toni Scwhartz, public information officer for the Public Safety Department, said the media tours are conducted about every 2-3 years. The last time was in November 2019, a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic threw the world into chaos. Masks still are required to be worn inside the state’s correctional facilities.

Many of the hallways at the state owned and operated Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center, called HCCC, are tight. Sometimes, it is difficult for staff and others to maneuver around each other without bumping shoulders.

The claustrophobic conditions also are felt by inmates. Four pairs of slippers sat outside a cell Wednesday in the jail’s Komohana unit. Based on the contents of others, the cell is likely only meant to house two people.

Members of the media and corrections officers walk down a tight corridor Wednesday at Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center. Photo Credit: Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now
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The inmate headcount as of Wednesday morning was 273 — 229 males and 44 females. The jail’s design capacity is 206 and its operating capacity is 226.

HCCC is a medium-security jail that houses inmates who are pretrial or serving very short-term misdemeanor sentences. It also houses transitional inmates who have almost completed their felony sentences and are returning to the community.

The state is trying to deal with some of the overcrowding at HCCC. Noise from machines and construction workers can be heard from multiple spots throughout the facility. Renovations on the older parts of the jail continue and work is underway on its new roughly $20 million, 48-bed housing module at the corner of Waiānuenue Avenue and Komohana Street.

Construction continues Wednesday on the roughly $20 million new housing module at the corner of Waiānuenue Avenue and Komohana Street at Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center. Photo Credit: Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now

The new three-level module was about 35% complete by Oct. 13 and is estimated to be finished by April 2023, according to the Public Safety Department.

The work has caused disruption to some of HCCC’s normal operations, including the relocation of the prisoner intake area. A two-man crew was observed putting up new wiring on the ceiling in the Punahele dayroom, making it unavailable for inmate use.

Wiring is installed Wednesday in the Punahele unit dayroom at Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center. Photo Credit: Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now
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HCCC is an aging facility. There’s no doubt about it. The existing facility was built 44 years ago in 1978.

Paint is wearing thin on the doors and walls, with some spots uncovered completely. Ceiling panels are missing in places, exposing wiring and piping. Worn spots are visible on the jail’s floors. Some bunk beds — which mostly sleep two — have noticeable rust spots.

Graffiti covers some walls and can be found on bunks in cells and on cell doors. A whiteboard in the jail’s classroom building has a blackened area from multiple uses. The yard behind the Punahele unit is overgrown. Parking is extremely limited at HCCC as well.

In August, the Hawai‘i Correctional System Oversight Commission toured the jail. It issued a report in September about the overcrowding, stating its serious concerns about the safety of inmates and employees at HCCC.

The report pointed out a variety of issues that needed to be addressed, including a lack of programs and basic services, the use of a shipping container to house inmates exposed to COVID and limited recreational space.

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That report was the “smoking gun” that led Hawaiʻi County Council Vice Chairman Aaron Chung to introduce a resolution during its Oct. 19 meeting supporting the relocation of the jail to an area that would provide more space for the Public Safety Department to expand the facility and better support the needs of inmates and employees.

The measure was supported by the Council and neighbors of HCCC, which is located in a concentrated residential area.

Meanwhile, renovations are underway to help with some of the jail’s issues.

The Komohana unit dayroom at HCCC.

New doors were installed on several renovated cells in the Punahele unit as well as urgency call buttons in case of an emergency. You could still smell the paint Wednesday. Modular communications pods are being installed in each of the housing units so inmates can attend court hearings and see visitors virtually and privately.

The prisoner intake area is being upgraded and work will soon begin on the lobby and visitation rooms at the Punahele unit. Other renovations also are in the works.

The education building at the Waiānuenue unit, which includes a library and classroom, offers regular basic education and other classes based on what inmates ask for and need.

According to the jail’s educational specialist Michael Gebers, hybrid classes about victim impacts are offered in conjunction with the Hawai‘i County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney. Cognitive behavioral therapy classes that teach social skills, anger management and problem-solving also are available.

While Schwartz admitted Wednesday that the renovations and new construction don’t solve HCCC’s issues, they do put a dent in them. The media tour helps the public see what’s being done to address the issues as much as it brings awareness to them.

Improvements need to be made, she said. Hopefully, the tour can show state lawmakers not just the existing conditions for staff and inmates at the jail but also that funds are needed to make those necessary improvements.

“It lets people get a better picture of the aged facility that the staff is working in and inmates are living in,” Schwartz said.

The slideshow is photos taken by BIg Island Now reporter Nathan Christophel during the tour of the Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center.

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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