Kulani prison reopens

Gov. Neil Abercrombie called the reopening of Kulani Correctional Facility “an opportunity to reclaim lives.”


Gov. Neil Abercrombie called the reopening of Kulani Correctional Facility “an opportunity to reclaim lives.”

The 280-acre facility about 20 miles southeast of Hilo was closed in 2009 as a cost-cutting measure by former Gov. Linda Lingle. Until recently, the facility was used by the Hawaii National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Academy.

Speaking to an audience of about 150 at the reopening ceremony Tuesday in the minimum-security prison’s gymnasium, Abercrombie called the reopening and the planned transfer of almost 200 inmates to Kulani “the right thing to do.”

“If we send people away from paradise, if we send people away from ‘ohana, from family, how are they going to work their way back? How will they find their way back?” he said. “The mainland is no place for those who have stumbled, for those who have gone astray. Whatever chance that they have to restore our community, to restore themselves and their families in their communities, it has to be done here in Hawaii. And this is the first step, today.”

Media members were given an early morning tour of the facility, including the piggery, currently dormant, which is tabbed for use in a planned agricultural program, plus dormitories, potable water catchment and pumping station, wastewater treatment facility, woodworking and automotive shops.

“The drinking water here is better than the water in town,” boasted Jerry Crivello, Kulani’s facilities maintenance superintendent.

The tour didn’t include the facility’s kitchen, which DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said would be completed in “about a week.”

Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai touted the prison’s location, on the slopes of Mauna Loa at about 6,000 feet above sea level.

“Just look around; breathe the air,” he said.

Sakai said DPS lost a “critical part of the corrections program” and “the community lost a valuable resource” when Kulani closed, adding the reactivation “fills a void.”

“We have only one minimum security facility in Hawaii. We’re gonna have two now,” he said. “We’re gonna add 200 minimum security beds. This is really important to help our inmates transition back to the community from a hard prison like Halawa (on Oahu) or Saguaro (in Arizona) to a community setting.”

Abercrombie and Sakai’s plan include instituting an agricultural program the governor called “the biggest in the state” — designed to help feed inmates and sell products on the local market.

Sakai said inmate transfers to Kulani will be screened for good work records, no history of escape and less than four years remaining in their sentences.

“The first group has to have certain kinds of skills because they’re gonna help us put this place together,” he said.

The state allocated $686,400 for the facility’s renovation, including electrical upgrades, new kitchen equipment, roofing repairs and other minor refurbishment.

Sakai said the facility will cost about $5.9 million a year to operate and described its closure as a misstep.

“I believe it was a mistake, not only in terms of the employment, but also in terms of the void in our correctional programming,” he said.

Kulani used to house the state’s sex offender treatment program, which Sakai described as “one of the most successful.”

“This is one of the really unfortunate aspects of the closing of Kulani,” he said. “What we’re looking at right now is: Can we get the quality treatment providers back here, right here on this island? Because it is fairly remote. And if we can, we’ll talk to the community about bringing the sex offender treatment program back to Kulani.”

The reopening is part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a federal plan launched last year intended to reduce spending on corrections, reinvest savings generated in strategies to reduce crime trends and eventually bring Hawaii inmates housed in commercial mainland prisons back into the state.

Not everyone is in favor of the prison’s reopening. A Native Hawaiian group called ‘Ohana Ho‘opakele is suing DPS and the state Department of Accounting and General Services. The group wants to establish a pu‘uhonua, or place of refuge or healing at Kulani, instead of reopening the prison.

The suit is awaiting trial, but motions by the group for a summary judgment against the defendants and a preliminary injunction to stop the reopening were denied by Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara. The hearing for the injunction request was Monday.

Ralph Palikapu Dedman, ‘Ohana Ho‘opakele’s president, said in a written statement Monday that DPS “has been under fire for not only failing to establish a Pu‘uhonua at Kulani, but for numerous escapes in the state’s prisons, routine cancellations of prisoners visitation with families, corruption within the system, guard drug trafficking, and now inviting the Prison Industrial Complex to profit off the misery of Hawaiians and further fleece the taxpayer.”

The group planned what it describes as a peaceful protest of the ceremony at Kulani’s main gate, but weren’t allowed to proceed beyond the intersection of Stainback Highway and North Kulani Road, several miles below Kulani. State Sheriff’s deputies and Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement personnel operated a checkpoint there to compare IDs against the ceremony’s invitation list.

In an email Tuesday, activist Jim Albertini called the checkpoint a “police State tactic” and a “violation of our civil liberties to travel on a state highway to peacefully protest” the reopening.

Schwartz described Stainback Highway above the North Kulani Road intersection an easement controlled by DPS.

“From that point on is the responsibility of the Department of Public Safety,” she said. “We knew we were going to have a lot of people coming up, and the only area that’s an easy turnaround is at that point. … After that, it gets really narrow and there’s no easy way to turn around.”

Schwartz also noted the event was “by invite only.”

“They never asked us to come up; they never approached us,” she said. “… We had some people who we didn’t invite, but they found out and they asked us if they would come and we said yes. But we were never asked by them if they could come up.


“… The only notification we had that they were coming up was when they handed out a press release after the (court hearing) the day before. We didn’t even know before then.”

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

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