Officials share memories of old Hilo jailhouse

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald The old Hilo County Jail building
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Hawaii Community Correctional Center Warden Peter Cabreros, center right, talks with officers and employees Thursday from the front of the entrance of the old Hilo County Jail building.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Hawaii Community Correctional Center Warden Peter Cabreros talks with Department of Public Safety official Terry Visperas Thursday inside the entrance of the old Hilo County Jail building.

The impending demolition of the old Hilo County Jail brought together public safety officials and local dignitaries Thursday to share memories of the historic building.

State Sen. Lorraine Inouye — whose district stretches from Hilo to Kona — said she’s been working for three decades to put in motion the demolition of the two-story, rectangular brick jailhouse, which was built in 1896 and last housed inmates in 1978.

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The old jail was later converted to Hawaii Community Correctional Center’s business office and maintenance unit until the building was condemned in the early 2000s.

The building, which had 11 8-feet-by-6-feet cells, was designed by architect O.G. Traphagan and built by John Cook at a cost of $13,895 — about $417,000 in today’s dollars.

Inouye said questions about historic preservation made her efforts a lengthy process.

“For me, the only historical thing about this building was that there are ghosts,” she said. “So, finally, I got the good news. … They said, ‘Senator, you got your wishes. There’s no historic value to the property.’ So we’ve been adding monies so we can complete what we’re going to see in the coming days.”

The old jailhouse sits outside the perimeter fence on the 3.8-acre HCCC site on Punahele Street in Hilo. The state Department of Public Safety said it has made efforts over the years to find a group willing to relocate and renovate the jailhouse, but none came forward because of the prohibitive cost of moving and renovating such a large and heavy structure.

HCCC Warden Peter Cabreros has worked at the facility since the old jail housed inmates.

“It brings back a lot of memories,” Cabreros said. “When I started working as a jail officer in 1975, the jail was under the management of the Hawaii County Police Department. On my first day of work, I participated in my first headcount. The total count was one inmate.

“Within a year, the jail was turned over to the state Department of Social Services and Housing. We eventually moved all the inmates into the Punahele housing unit in 1978, with a count of 32. Things were a lot simpler back then.”

Cabreros noted that in October 2017, a man who had just been released from HCCC started a fire in the old jailhouse.

The man, Daniel James Blust, attempted to flee the burning building but was apprehended by HCCC adult corrections officers. In March 2018, he was acquitted of arson, burglary and other charges by reason of penal irresponsibility, and is still confined at Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe, Oahu.

Although Blust was uninjured in the fire, one correctional officer was treated for smoke inhalation and another received treatment for a laceration suffered while fighting the fire.

DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said there are no current plans for the land where the old jail sits, although the Punahele Street facility, which houses male inmates, is chronically overcrowded. The current jail was designed to house 206 inmates. The end-of-month population report for November listed 317 men housed in the facility.

DPS is seeking $8.1 million for new medium-security housing at HCCC.

Heartwood Pacific LLC, a Keaau-based contractor, was awarded the contract to demolish the old jailhouse in December 2017 after submitting a sealed bid of $853,230.

Work is slated to start next week with removal of plumbing and electrical wiring before material salvage. The actual demolition is scheduled for the second week of February using a hydraulic excavator with demolition attachments. New electrical wiring will be installed and landscaping work will be performed, and the project is expected to be completed by July.

Cabreros said he’s “going to miss” the old jailhouse.

“I’ve been here, next month it will be 44 years,” he said. “… I’m just thankful I could be here today and … see the process of demolishing this old jail. It’s going to be sad but, you know, we have to move on.

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“And I think it’s best for the facility.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.