A Native Hawaiian group suing two state agencies because of plans to reopen Kulani Correctional Facility on July 1 added three inmates incarcerated at an Arizona prison as plaintiffs to its suit against the state.
Georgette Yaindl, a Hilo attorney representing Ohana Ho‘opakele and inmates Van Keoki Kahumoku, Bryan Miller and Cedric Ali‘i Kai Ah Sing said at a Monday press conference outside the Hilo state courthouse the state “is avoiding its responsibility to the Native Hawaiians of this island and all citizens of this state to establish puuhonua as the alternative to more incarcerated members of our society.” A puuhonua is a place of refuge or healing.
The lawsuit was filed Aug. 2 in Hilo Circuit Court against the Department of Public Safety, Department of Accounting and General Services and Comptroller Dean H. Seki. Yaindl said an amended complaint adding the three inmates as plaintiffs will be filed this week.
Yaindl questioned the validity of an environmental assessment filed by the state finding no significant impact by the plans to reopen Kulani as a minimum-security prison.
“The state is saying it’s a done deal,” she said. “Kulani camping grounds, now under the jurisdiction of the Department of Land and Natural Resources — it is not under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Safety any longer. Department of Public Safety and the state Department of Accounting and General Services have prepared environmental assessment 42 pages long that proposes to incarcerate up to 228 of our young men and older men throughout our state. Don’t tell you how many, if any — they say many — shall be returned from the United States.”
She said the EA “fails to state, for example, how they’re going to place 228 prisoners in a prison last designed to accommodate 160 prisoners” and displays “no consideration for neighbors Kamehameha Schools, no consideration for other native Hawaiian organizations who have a distinct and legal interest for what is going on in Kulani and what is happening with puuhonua statewide.”
“As for the new Kulani camping grounds, it has changed jurisdictions, it’s use as a prison is no longer appropriate,” she said.
Yaindl said DPS also failed to secure several permits the EA specifies are needed before the prison, which was closed in 2009 as a cost-cutting measure, reopens.
“Department of Public Safety has yet to apply for a conservation district use permit but continues to put out bids for minor renovations, they say,” she said.
She scoffed at a proposed $600,000 refurbishment of the facility in the document, derisively referring it as “a nominal amount.”
Yaindl said Hawaiians account for 13 percent of the state’s adult population, but a quarter of its felony convictions. She added Hawaiians are also facing misdemeanor charges in disproportionate numbers to their percentage of the population.
“Across the state, we have people in jail for 30 days for driving without a license and insurance sleeping on the jailhouse floor,” she said. “And Public Safety will have us believe that a proper solution for that is to reactivate a minimum security, or any prison, at Kulani camping grounds.”
Added Ralph Palikapu Dedman, the group’s president: “The census shows that (Hawaiians) are number five in the population, but we’re number one (for being) incarcerated. I’d say there’s a lot of racial profiling (with) Hawaiians being the highest number incarcerated with the most going in on felony charges, the most returning. So there’s a problem with the Hawaiians being used in these number games. I guess it’s not about crime; it’s about taxpayers’ money — $40,000 a year per prisoner. You steal a $5,000 car and you get a five-year prison term. That’s almost a quarter-million dollars. Our misery cannot become a commodity for this system.”
Simbralynn Kanaka‘ole said Hawaiian women are “being criminalized, as well as men.”
“There’s no place for us women on this island and they’re overcrowded on Oahu (at the women’s facility). So, puuhonua is the answer for all of us, especially the kanaka,” she said.
Ronald Fujiyoshi, the group’s treasurer, said DPS is failing to follow state law by going ahead with plans to reopen the prison.
“The governor signed Act 117 for the Department of Public Safety to work with Ohana Ho‘opakele to create a puuhonua, preferably at Kulani,” he said. “And then they ignored that. The Department of Public Safety ignored that. We testified at the hearings for the environmental assessment that (they) have to do a puuhonua instead of bringing back a prison. And they ignored us. So we have, by law, only a window of 30 days to do something. We couldn’t do a contested case hearing because they did a … finding of no significant (environmental) impact. So we had to do a legal action.”
DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in a Monday email the department has not been served with the amended complaint and “would have to reserve comment until after our attorneys have received it and had a chance to look over it with us.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.