Pitching tents only delays hard decisions on new prisons
Faced with an expiration of federal funds for a new prison, the state plans to put up tents to house an overflow of inmates.
Seldom do state officials have trouble spending millions of dollars furnished by taxpayers via the federal government. However, that's the situation confronting the Lingle administration.
A grant of $13.4 million, originally marked to help finance a new prison on Maui, will expire come October, but plans for the Puunene facility are still in the design stage, far from even breaking ground. If construction hasn't begun by the deadline, the allocation will lapse.
State officials, loath to lose it, have drawn up a proposal to use it.
The plan is to pitch seven big tents at prisons on Kauai, Hawaii island and Maui to hold minimum-security inmates, a temporary solution that, at best, will briefly ease a longstanding problem of crowded permanent facilities.
The state already sends more than 2,000 inmates to prisons on the mainland, primarily because it contends it is cheaper to feed and house them elsewhere. But there are high social costs. Inmates who lose contact with their families are almost twice as likely to become repeat offenders as those who do their time here.
Moreover, the privately run prisons are arousing objections from states in which they operate. Arizona, for example, is considering legislation to bar them from taking in the worst of felons -- murderers, sexual offenders or the mentally ill.
Building new prisons in Hawaii had been a priority for Gov. Linda Lingle, but she, like her predecessors, has been frustrated by communities' unwillingness to have such undesirable facilities nearby, and has abandoned her goals.
Buying the aluminum and fiberglass tents will eat up about $6 million. That amount, ironically, includes putting up new buildings to store the tents before they are erected, which cannot be done until an environmental report, required by federal law, is completed.
There's also a matter of security; some of the proposed tent sites do not have surrounding fences. Further, at one site, older buildings will have to be removed before the temporary tents can be raised.
State officials depict the plan as the largest expansion of prison facilities in decades, which says more about putting off problems for another day than real accomplishments and ignoring a need that will only grow.
While no one would have wanted to lose the money, it would have been far more useful had it gone to permanent solutions. Also, it wouldn't be surprising if the federal government regards Hawaii's grant requests with a skeptical eye about whether officials here can get things done.