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Steep Cost for Sending Hawaii Prisoners to Mainland Facilities

Hawaii has long been considered a tropical paradise, but those who run afoul of the law on the islands stand a good chance of being exiled. Over a third of Hawaii’s prisoners are shipped to a privately-operated facility in Arizona to serve the majority of their sentences. 

Critics have charged that separating prisoners from their families risks the possibility of increased recidivism, but the issue that has grabbed headlines is the cost. Tickets for chartered flights from Honolulu to the Saguaro Correctional Center, operated by CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) jumped from around $1,300 each in 2016 to $1,800 in 2018. The transportation costs totaled about $2.2 million, in addition to the $45 million per year to house prisoners at Saguaro. 

Overcrowding in Hawaii’s eight detention centers has left state lawmakers with few good options. The prison system’s 3,500 beds have been holding nearly 5,400 – a situation that has forced double- or triple-occupancy of single-man cells, with some prisoners having to sleep on the floor.

A complaint filed by the ACLU in 2017 demanded that action be taken to alleviate the overcrowded conditions, but the legislature balked at the potential $2 billion price tag for refurbishing old facilities or building new ones. Even if the state agreed to fund that expense, prisoners would still have to be warehoused in Arizona or elsewhere until the new facilities were ready – a process that could take years. 

A different solution has gained support in the House, where a bill was introduced to purchase an existing federal prison in Honolulu. Constructed in 2001 at a cost of $170 million, the facility houses only 400 prisoners but has capacity for 1,200. Governor David Ige’s previous offer to buy or lease the prison was turned down by the Obama administration, but President Trump may be open to a deal. 

In the meantime, there is little incentive to stop Hawaii from dumping its prisoners at Saguaro. CoreCivic charges $82.61 per diem to house prisoners at the facility. That would be expensive compared to most state-run prisons, yet it pales in comparison to the $182 a day it costs to house a prisoner in Hawaii. 

For the state legislature, the human cost of exiling prisoners to a facility far from their families apparently does not outweigh the financial cost. 



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