Abercrombie pledges corrections system overhaul


Gov. Neil Abercrombie told a class of 26 adult corrections officer recruits Friday that they are getting in on the ground floor of what he described as a statewide initiative to revamp and reorient the corrections program.

Visiting the class with state Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai, Abercrombie said that the planned reopening of Kulani Correctional Facility in early July is just a start, and plans are in the works to replace antiquated and overcrowded Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo and build a jail facility in Kona.

“As you know, the west side of the island is growing in numbers and density and in ways there’s a new Judiciary complex over there. So, my plan includes building jail facilities, correctional facilities on the Kona side and eliminating the necessity of going back and forth with prisoners,” he said. “… What that means is there are going to be more opportunities in terms of professional openings on that side. … There are going to be new opportunities in what are now nonexistent positions and responsibilities. All that’s part of an integrated plan and opening Kulani is just a step in an overall plan for the Big Island.”

Abercrombie said that the planned reopening is “right on the kinipopo,” time wise. The plan is to eventually house 200 inmates in the minimum security facility on the slopes of Mauna Kea outside Hilo and to eventually return all Hawaii inmates housed in private prisons on the mainland.

“Part of the reason it’s taken us as long as it has … to get Kulani opened is that we were making the switch of the Youth ChalleNGe program that’s up at Kulani,” he said. The National Guard program for at-risk youth, which has been using the Kulani facility, is being moved to the Keaukaha Military Reservation.

The governor said he received approval Thursday of a $350,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to help fund initial training for an agricultural program at Kulani using inmate labor. He said it’s part of $8 million in grant funding earmarked for what he described as a sustainable program which will include greenhouses and other agricultural infrastructure plus recycling of green waste to energy.

“I think this is gonna lower the recidivism rate,” he said. “We’re not only gonna be training people, we’re gonna be giving people a sense that they are not just in a hopeless situation marking time … Road, water and power construction means there’s gonna be jobs in the construction industry, as well.”

He added that the program would tap the expertise of the state Department of Agriculture and the agriculture program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Abercrombie said he has a six-year plan for revamping the state’s corrections system that includes closing Oahu Community Correctional Center, which he described as “inadequate” from the day it opened. He said he believes he can find a private developer who can make a better use of the land OCCC occupies in the lower Kalihi neighborhood of Honolulu and who will fund and build a jail elsewhere.

The governor, who is up for re-election this year, is facing a primary challenge from State Sen. David Ige. A Honolulu Star-Advertiser/Hawaii News Now poll last month of registered voters gave the incumbent governor a 47 to 38 percent edge over the Leeward Oahu Democrat. That same poll gave likely GOP challenger Duke Aiona a 48 to 40 percent lead in a head-to-head matchup. Aiona was the lieutenant governor in the administration of Abercrombie’s predecessor, Linda Lingle, who shuttered Kulani in September 2009.

Abercrombie called the closure, which Lingle touted as a cost-cutting measure, as “a misstep.”

“When Kulani closed, it wasn’t just the facility closing,” he said. “… I know that people had to leave their families and leave the islands to take jobs elsewhere. I know that people got bumped because we didn’t have adequate personnel in the facilities that we did have. Closing Kulani caused a whole disruption in our corrections system.

“… The question that has to be asked right now is, ‘What’s the cost of sending people out of the state?’ Not just in dollars-and-cents terms, but in lost opportunities for dealing with our own difficulties, in our own way, inside our own home, inside our state.”

Asked afterwards about a lawsuit filed against the state by the Native Hawaiian group Ohana Ho‘opakele and joined by three inmates incarcerated at an Arizona facility over the state’s alleged failure to implement Act 117 and establish a pu‘uhonua or place of refuge or healing at Kulani, Abercrombie said he wouldn’t comment on the litigation.

“What we’re here today about is to see to it Kulani not only reopens, but that these young men and women who are thinking about having a career in corrections understand that they’re going to be part of an initiative towards the complete revamping and reorientation of the corrections program … throughout Hawaii. And the Big Island is the kickoff to that.”

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

 

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