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Hawaii Prison Relocation Project Fails to Skirt Environmental Review

While lawmakers in Hawaii have advanced bills to fast-track the relocation of a state prison, they were forced to concede that an environmental impact review could not be avoided.

In February 2016, the state legislature held a pair of hearings to consider House Bill 2388 and Senate Bill 2917, which both called for the relocation of the Oahu Community Correctional Center, currently sited in the Kalihi neighborhood on Honolulu. The facility would be relocated to the site of the old Halawa prison.

Under Governor David Ige’s proposal, the administration could access over $489 million through general obligation bonds for the prison’s relocation. The initial plan included a provision that would exempt the project from an environmental impact review, since the facility would be built on a prior prison site. By avoiding the review, construction could be expedited.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii was none too pleased. Marti Townsend, director of the Club’s Hawaii chapter, put the group’s objection into the record, stating, “Our position is simple: conduct an environmental assessment on the prison proposal as state law requires.”

Townsend continued, “How else can the project proponent know that the proposed site is the right location, that the proposed building is the right design, that the proposed use meets our stated needs? It can’t.”

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) agreed, calling the proposed environmental impact exemption “unnecessary and inappropriate,” and saying “[t]he exemption in this measure would ... set a dangerous precedent for any future ‘high-priority’ public projects.”

“Our environmental review process demonstrates our state’s well-founded belief that the desire for development should never outweigh the importance of careful, responsible planning, particularly when public resources are involved,” OHA said in written testimony.

During a hearing on the legislation, state Rep. Cynthia Thielen cited the example of the state’s attempt to exempt the Hawaii superferry from environmental studies – a move that was ultimately struck down by the state’s Supreme Court. “We’ve been down that road before,” she stated.

Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin also submitted written testimony telling lawmakers they should remove the environmental impact exemption. The final decision on the legislation favored conducting the required environmental review, which could add at least a year to the process of building the new prison.

Still, Kat Brady with the Community Alliance on Prisons pushed towards a larger victory, stating that Governor Ige’s prison proposal also attempted to circumvent a 1998 law that guided the administration to “develop and implement a community partnering process” for new prison plans.

According to Brady, “The heart of the law – involving the community early on in the process – in the development of the request for proposals has been cut out by this administration.”

“What is it that they do not want to disclose?” she added. “Is it because an environmental review triggers a ‘No Build’ alternative where the state must justify the project with a thorough analysis (open to community review) of other alternatives?”

Hawaii officials are considering hiring a private prison company, such as Corrections Corporation of America, to build the new prison and lease it to the state. CCA houses hundreds of Hawaii prisoners in for-profit facilities on the U.S. mainland, and has done so for decades due to overcrowding in Hawaii’s prison system.

Originally designed to hold 628 prisoners, the Oahu Community Correctional Center was expanded to 954 beds yet housed a population of around 1,155 as of the end of 2015, with some prisoners sleeping on the floor.

Sources: Honolulu Civil Beat,, Star-Advertiser, Associated Press

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