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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 25, 2004

Lingle seeks $500,000 to plan jail in Kona

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Gov. Linda Lingle is asking for money to plan a 350-bed jail in Kona to ease crowding and other problems at the Hawai'i Community Correctional Center in Hilo, but the project may not be an easy sell to West Hawai'i residents.

If approved, the Kona jail would be the largest new lockup built in Hawai'i since the Halawa Medium Security Correctional Facility opened on O'ahu in 1987, and it would be larger than the Hilo facility, which provides jobs for 150.

The state also wants it to be the first privately operated jail or prison in Hawai'i.

Almost all of Hawai'i's prisons and jails are crowded, and 1,600 Hawai'i inmates are housed in privately run correctional facilities on the Mainland.

Frank Lopez, the Department of Public Safety's deputy director for corrections, said he doesn't know exactly where the jail might be built, but Kona residents said the location will be a critical issue.

Marshall Blann, a retiree who has lived in Hualalai for seven years, said the proposal will raise concerns about traffic if the state plans to put the jail anywhere near the airport or along Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway outside Kailua.

"The issue in Kona with any reasonably large project is the effect on traffic," Blann said. "The Queen Ka'ahumanu (highway) is a long parking lot, pretty much I'd say from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m."

Lopez said the state is seeking $500,000 for initial planning and to prepare a request for proposals inviting private interests to finance and build the jail, which the state then could lease.

Otherwise, the state would have to pay tens of millions of dollars in construction costs. State lawmakers traditionally have been unwilling to use limited state construction money for new jails or prisons when the same money is needed for schools or medical facilities.

Lopez said the state also would like to hire a private company to operate the jail.

Several Kona residents said they were surprised to learn of the proposal for a new jail, and Lopez said hearings will be held on the Big Island to gather community input on the plan.

The new facility would hold pre-trial detainees and inmates nearing the end of their terms.

Lopez said having a jail in Kona would help cut down on overtime and other expenses. More than half of the detainees at HCCC in Hilo are from Kona, Lopez said, and corrections officers have to shuttle prisoners daily more than 100 miles from Hilo to court appearances in Kona.

A new Kona jail also would help solve crowding at HCCC, which has reached the point where security concerns have been raised. Detainees at the Hilo jail started fires last summer in a disturbance that several staff members blamed on restrictions on inmate activities because of crowding.

On Thursday, corrections Capt. Peter Cabreros said all the cells were full and 11 inmates were bunking in a program room, with a smaller number sleeping in the jail's four dayrooms.

At times the jail houses even more inmates, and Cabreros said "it creates a lot of anxieties for these guys. Imagine living with 40-something inmates in a little room. It's not the best conditions.

"We do need a new facility and if they're going to build one, it would be best on that (Kona) side."

HCCC has 152 secure beds at its main facility on Waianuenue Avenue a mile from downtown Hilo, and 140 beds at the less secure community custody facility called Hale Nani in Pana'ewa.

The state Legislature will decide next year whether to approve Lingle's request for planning money.

Lopez said he hopes to have the jail open in 2008, but emphasized that prison officials still are in the early phases of planning the project.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.