Field Guide: Honolulu Behind Bars

A quick guide to where you don’t want to be.

Ever wonder where people go when they get busted in Hawaii for customs violations? Unclear on which prison has the biggest bad-asses, Waiawa or Halawa? Or which has the best salad? This month’s Field Guide sorts it all out with a look at the island’s lockup facilities.

The Oahu Community Correctional Center

Oahu Community Correctional Center

Oahu’s only jail (the Neighbor Islands have their own jails) occupies 16 acres along Dillingham Boulevard in Kalihi. The prominent double-pitched hip roofs atop the inmates’ housing modules scream “1970s” and make OCCC (pronounced Oh Triple C) look like a village of Pizza Huts surrounded by chain-link fencing and razor wire.

Who’s there >> Male and female detainees awaiting trial (not everyone makes bail), plus some sentenced male felons with less than a year to serve.

Number of beds >> 954

Number of inmates >> 1,300 (New arrivals get mattresses on the floor.)

Inexplicable color >> The walls of the intake center are painted a welcoming pink.

Waiawa Correctional Facility

It’s not exactly a country retreat, but this minimum-security prison is pleasantly situated on the forested mountainside above Waipio.  The emphasis here is on drug treatment. That and farming. Inmates grow their own produce on the prison’s 9-acre farm.

Who’s there >> Nonviolent inmates with histories of substance abuse who are close to their release dates … and enjoying the penal system’s best salads in the meantime.

Number of beds >> 334

Number of inmates >> 334 or fewer.

Latest bumper crop >> Won bok.

The Women’s Community Correctional Center

Women’s Community Correctional Center

Located along Kalanianaole Highway in Kailua, Hawaii’s only women’s prison has minimum, medium and maximum levels of security. Most inmates are also moms, and during the monthly Kids Day, their children join them for face painting, tug of war and other organized activities.

Who’s there >> Sentenced felons from all islands, plus some pretrial detainees.

Number of  beds >> 260

Number of inmates >> 290

Culinary critique >> A former inmate who launched an online petition entitled, “Stop Feeding the Women Horrible Food!” writes: “I never ate so much chicken in my life than when I was incarcerated!! And, to think, I used to love to eat chicken! But nowadays, I cannot even think of having another chicken to eat.”

Halawa Correctional Facility

This dismal, concrete fortress at the hot, dusty mouth of Halawa Valley is actually two prisons in one: 1) an ordinary medium-security prison, and 2) a “special-needs facility,” where inmates with severe mental illnesses or really bad behavior are kept apart from everyone else.

Who’s there >> Sentenced male felons, including the most incorrigible.

Number of beds >> 992

Number of inmates >> 1,045, with an overflow population of 1,600 doing time in Arizona facilities.

Jailhouse Rock >> Hillside blasting at the nearby quarry causes periodic seismic disturbances.

The Federal Detention Center

Federal Detention Center in Honolulu

Hawaii’s only high-rise prison is adjacent to Honolulu International Airport, across the tarmac from the Neighbor Island terminal. The 12-story facility, which opened in 2001, features some cells with mountain views and others with ocean views, albeit through tiny windows about 2 1/2 inches wide.

Who’s there >> Male and female federal detainees awaiting trial, including people arrested for immigration or customs violations, plus some sentenced federal prisoners (but no lifers). Also, about 300 state inmates that OCCC does not have room for.

Number of beds >> 977

Number of inmates >> About 740

Federal prisons have >> a reputation for better food than state prisons.

Federal prisons prohibit >> weight lifting.

For insight into daily life >> see the “Admission and Orientation Handbook” (online at, which includes rules governing everything from exercise (“Only pushups and situps are allowed in the cells”) to porn (“These pictures/photographs will only be stored inside a book or photo album”).