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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Hilo jail crisis shows need for rational plan

Prison overcrowding may be most critical at the Hawai'i Community Correctional Center, but it's a symptom of a statewide malaise: failure to confront our prison problem.

The prescription seems obvious: The state needs to embark on a measured expansion to deal with the near-term prison population growth and find ways to limit the growth of that population through intensive drug treatment and other alternatives to incarceration.

Experts analyzing the shameful conditions at the Hilo jail see a connection between the chronic shortage of space and the eight prison breaks in two years.

The state has been twice sued over conditions at the jail; beyond the legal liability, the situation at a dysfunctional jail clearly puts public safety at risk. For example, the April escape of one inmate ended when a corrections officer shot him as he ran down a downtown Hilo street.

If people believe that the prison problem can be effectively swept under the table, they're wrong.

In Hilo, the strain seems extreme. Cells hold twice as many as they were designed to handle, with inmates sleeping on the floor.

To some degree, the overcrowding problem at jails can be viewed separately from the same issue at the higher-security facilities. The state administration has made some moves to expand the Big Island's correctional center capacity by proposing a Kona jail, but has not committed to a site.

The quest for a permanent solution to crowding at the state prisons on O'ahu has stalled outright. The Lingle administration has all but abandoned the push to build a new prison in Hawai'i, with top officials saying no community has stepped up to offer a site. Shipping out our inmates to the Mainland has been adopted as the politically painless fix.

But why is it up to an individual neighborhood to volunteer? It's the job of our public safety officials and the politicians we elected to hold the reins, to analyze the options and propose the best one.

Sending prisoners away merely postpones the day when prison crowding becomes a crisis we can't ignore.