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Group continues push against Kulani reopening

A Native Hawaiian group suing two state agencies over plans to reopen Kulani Correctional Facility has filed a motion in an attempt to prevent the state from enacting its plans to reopen the prison.

A hearing on Ohana Ho‘opakele’s motion for summary judgment against the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Accounting and General Services and state Comptroller Dean Seki is set for 9 a.m. June 20 before Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara. The hearing date is 11 days before the state’s scheduled reopening of the minimum-security prison.

The group wants the state to establish a pu‘uhonua, a place of refuge or healing, instead of reopening the prison on the site about 20 miles southeast of Hilo on the northeast slopes of Mauna Loa.

“I think it’s all going to become clearer after that hearing,” Ronald Fujiyoshi, Ohana Ho‘opakele’s treasurer, said Monday at a demonstration that drew about 20 at the state courthouse in Hilo.

The reopening, which would house about 200 of the roughly 1,700 Hawaii inmates currently in private mainland prisons, is part of the national “Justice Reinvestment Initiative,” and has been touted by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Kulani is projected to have a staff of between 90-100 and a $5.3 million yearly budget. It would also have community work projects using inmate labor.

The group’s president, Ralph Palikapu Dedman, said obtaining a summary judgment would be “a moral victory for us … if they don’t open at the governor’s appointed time.”

“We still got our work to do in addressing the issue of disproportionate incarceration of Hawaiians. That’s our main goal,” he said. He noted that Hawaiians comprise more than half the roughly 6,000 prisoners in Hawaii.

Act 117, which was signed into law by Abercrombie in 2012, directs 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. He said Sakai “has not proceeded in good faith to follow Act 117 … designating Kulani to be a pu‘uhonua, not a prison.”

Dedman said a pu‘uhonua for 200 carefully screened prisoners with a year left on their sentences “is a step toward justice that needs to be taken now.”

The state filed an environmental assessment finding no significant impact by the plan to reopen Kulani as a minimum-security prison. Dedman said the 42-page document has “inadequacies” and wants a full environmental impact statement to be done.

“They might have to go back to the drawing board and redo it,” he said.

The 280-acre site sits on conservation land and the group has called for DPS to obtain a conservation district use permit, but at its Jan. 24 meeting, the Board of Land and Natural Resources unanimously approved issuance of a revocable permit to DPS for Kulani and issuance of immediate construction of right-of-entry without one, ruling that a site plan approval signed on Dec. 9 was sufficient “based on the limited improvements done to the site,” according to the meeting’s minutes.

DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in an email Monday that the department is “on schedule” reopen Kulani on July 1.

“We will be getting our staff situated in the first week. We plan to start bringing inmates up to Kulani in waves in the following months,” she wrote.

Schwartz declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in August, or the plaintiffs’ pending motion, on advice of legal counsel.

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

 

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