Judge rules against Hawaiian group over Kulani reopening

A judge cleared the way Wednesday for the state’s reopening of Kulani Correctional Facility.


A judge cleared the way Wednesday for the state’s reopening of Kulani Correctional Facility.

Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara granted the Department of Public Safety’s request for a summary judgment against Ohana Ho‘opakele, a Hawaiian group who sued to block the reopening of the minimum security prison 20 miles southwest of Hilo.

The ruling, in effect, dismisses the lawsuit. The group sought to have a pu‘uhonua, or place of refuge or healing, at the site, instead of a prison, and argued the state’s environmental assessment didn’t consider a pu‘uhonua. Other arguments included the state had not implemented Act 117, signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2012, which directed DPS to work with Ohana Ho‘opakele and others to establish a pu‘uhonua at the Kulani site unless a better site can be found, and that a prison is an improper use of crown lands once owned by the Hawaiian monarchy. The group believes crown lands, also called ceded lands, “should be used for the betterment of native Hawaiians and not for the general public,” according to a written statement.

The group also argues Hawaiians are over-incarcerated and are used as a commodity for the prison industrial complex, the outsourcing of inmates to private for-profit prisons on the mainland.

Hara previously denied Ohana Ho‘opakele’s motions for a summary judgment and an injunction to stop the prison’s reopening.

“I basically believe the state’s position is the correct … statement of the law …,” Hara said. The judge noted he previously “made a statement to the effect that if this isn’t a proper purpose I don’t know what was … in respect to the land being used for a prison and public safety.”

Ohana Ho‘opakele representatives said afterwards they’ll appeal the decision.

“God, we pray for an appellate angel,” said the group’s attorney, Georgette Yaindl.

Ronald Fujiyoshi, Ohana Ho‘opakele’s treasurer, said he’s “disappointed with the judge” for “not making a decision on the merits of the case and just sending it upstairs on appeal so they can make the decision.”

Deputy Attorney General Renee Sonobe Hong, who represented DPS at the hearing, said afterwards the state “complied with the requirements of the Hawaii Revised Statutes and the Hawaii Administrative Rules in completing the final environmental assessment,” which found no significant environmental impact.

DPS Director Ted Sakai said he’s “gratified with the outcome.”

“We’re just looking forward,” he said. “We’re glad this phase of the process is done and we’re gratified that the judge saw it our way. We felt that we had done everything right in the first place. So, we’re just making sure that the facility is implemented properly and we have a solid correctional program for the state of Hawaii.”

Sakai said he’s “not an expert at pu‘uhonua” and added he’s working with the Kupuna (elder) Council and with Hawaii Community College to develop programs.

“I do believe there’s good reason for us to develop a program based on Hawaiian cultural values,” he said. “So, we’ve invited members of the community to work with us to develop a program that can be effective, that can (give) inmate participants a sense of who they are and where they came from …”

He said an outline has been developed for the program’s curriculum and that the community college has been contacted for funding.

“We’ve asked the Kupuna Council to review the outline and help us determine if its complete enough and also help us identify some of the people who can deliver the teachings,” he said.

Ohana Ho‘opakele President Ralph Palikapu Dedman accused Sakai of “overuse of the term kupuna … to escape what he should be addressing.”

“I haven’t seen them use any other nationality’s kupunas …,” he said. “But when it comes to Hawaiians, they always use our kupunas. … Stop using old Hawaiians that are not up to par with what’s going on as an escape to address the issue. Hide behind old Hawaiian people? Come on. … That’s what the department has been using for years, is hiding behind our old folks, and never addressing today’s issues with our young folks.”

Dedman said Ohana Ho‘opakele would be willing to meet with DPS about what they think should be done in creating a pu‘uhonua.

“But have they ever talked to us? No,” he said. “The Department of Public Safety has always kept it separate … us from other Hawaiian organizations because of our stance. … We don’t want to entertain the problem. We want to fix the problem.”


DPS hosted a reopening ceremony July 1 for Kulani, which was closed in 2009 by then-Gov. Linda Lingle for economic reasons. The state plans to eventually incarcerate about 200 minimum security inmates there. The first 21 arrived Monday, according to DPS.

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

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