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Judge sides with state at Kulani prison hearing

The state won Friday morning an important ruling in Hilo Circuit Court in its bid to reopen Kulani Correctional Facility.

In response, opponents of the plan announced their intention to file a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the prison from reopening on the scheduled date of July 1, before their legal challenges are completed.

Native Hawaiian group Ohana Ho‘opakele wants the state to establish a pu‘uhonua, or a place of refuge or healing, at the site 20 miles southeast of Hilo as an alternative to reopening the prison.

Ohana Ho‘opakele supporters gathered outside the courthouse before the hearing, waving signs demanding “Justice for Hawaiians!” and asking for “Pu‘uhonua Not Prison.”

The reopening would return about 200 of the roughly 1,700 Hawaii inmates currently held in private mainland prisons. The move is part of the national “Justice Reinvestment Initiative,” and has been supported by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

In its court battle to stop the reopening, the Hawaiian group had filed a motion for summary judgment against the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Accounting and General Services and state Comptroller Dean Seki, claiming that an environmental assessment that cleared the way for the prison to reopen was inadequate. Instead, the plaintiff had requested a more comprehensive environmental impact study.

In announcing his ruling, Judge Glenn Hara said that Ohana Ho‘opakele had failed to highlight any irregularities or insufficiencies in relation to the final environmental assessment.

“The court does not see that based on what was presented, there was any substantial deviation from the requirements of law and the administrative rules,” he said.

Hara added that the timeframe for the announcement and publishing of the environmental assessment appeared to be in order, and that the public had been provided ample opportunity to weigh in on the assessment.

“I believe that the draft EA (environmental assessment) did list various agencies, including all elected officials on the island,” he said.

In response to Hara’s decision, attorney for the plaintiffs Georgette Yaindl asked the judge for an immediate reconsideration of his ruling, which he denied. She then told Hara that the plaintiffs were requesting a preliminary injunction against the reactivation of Kulani “until such time as the trial on the merits shall be heard on this case,” she said.

The judge said that he was not prepared to evaluate the motion, and set a hearing date of June 30 at 2 p.m.

In the hallway after the hearing, Yaindl said the judge’s ruling was unexpected.

“The best surprises are pleasant surprises. Unfortunately, today was not a pleasant surprise,” she said. “Now, I’m going to go have a cold, tall glass of water and a cup of coffee, and put together the pleadings I need to file by 4 p.m. today.”

Renee Sonobe Hong, attorney for the state, said little after the hearing, but the smile on her face was unmistakable.

“We’re pleased with the court’s ruling,” she said.

Less than three hours after Friday’s ruling, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety issued a press release announcing a reopening ceremony to be held at Kulani on July 1 from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

“Lawmakers, dignitaries, other state department directors, community stakeholders, and past and present staff and their families have been invited to come see the facility and participate in this historic occasion before the inmates return,” the release reads. “The first wave of inmates is expected to arrive two weeks after the opening day. The rest of the 200 inmates will be added in small increments in the following months.”

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-


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