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Kulani gets environmental approval


Stephens Media Hawaii

A state plan to reopen Kulani Correctional Facility cleared an environmental hurdle this week, when the Department of Health’s Office of Environmental Quality Control issued a finding of no significant impact for the project.

Former Gov. Linda Lingle closed Kulani in 2009, citing the state’s budget deficit. Department officials plan to bring about 200 inmates to Hawaii Island. If those prisoners are from Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu, then the state will have spaces open there to house prisoners from mainland prisons, where about 30 percent of Hawaii’s inmates are incarcerated, officials said.

Public Safety Director Ted Sakai said he expected to get the environmental approval without much difficulty, because his department is proposing to reoccupy property previously used as a correctional facility and a site that has remained in use by other groups in the intervening years. He said the environmental assessment generated a significant amount of community input, particularly with regards to concerns about the impact the minimum-security facility will have on the surrounding forest.

Sakai noted prisoners were involved in the forest restoration work, and “we did such a good job … some of the endangered species started to migrate” into the area.

That work will continue, he said.

“It’s a great opportunity to give the inmates an education,” he said.

Inmates worked with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the forestry projects, the environmental document said.

The goal is to reopen Kulani in July 2014. The Legislature approved $2.4 million in 2014 for reactivating and operations, and about $5 million in 2015. “Nominal” repairs and upgrades to reopen Kulani will cost about $600,000, the final environmental assessment said.

Kulani is about 20 miles outside of Hilo. Sakai said Kulani would need 91 employees, mostly correctional officers but also social workers, nurses and administrators, to run as a minimum security facility. The department has already begun internal recruiting for some of those jobs and will soon open the positions to the general public, Sakai said. He hopes to have his administrative staff in place by fall.

Officials estimated the savings the state realized from bringing inmates back from mainland prisons would offset the increased staffing costs. The contract with a mainland-based prison charges the state per prisoner housed per day, Sakai said.

He said he doesn’t yet know from where Kulani’s initial group of inmates will come. That decision will be made sometime early next year, and will be based on the prisoners’ behavior.

“Everyone will be minimum security,” Sakai said. “Their behavior will be good. No escape history, no history of violence in prison.”

Kulani will provide a transition for inmates moving from medium-security places like Halawa to places like Hale Nani in Hilo, which houses inmates who work during the day and spend the night incarcerated, Sakai said. To move directly from Halawa, a stereotypical looking prison complete with high walls, to a work-release type site can be difficult for prisoners, he added.

The correctional facility will offer prisoner education and rehabilitation, which will emphasize teaching job skills, such as mechanical repair and maintenance, construction, heavy equipment operation and computer work.

“The proposed reactivation supports Hawaii’s justice reinvestment initiative strategy to bring out-of-state prisoners back to Hawaii, reduce spending on corrections, and reinvest savings generated in strategies that would reverse recent crime trends,” the document said.

Public Safety officials also plan to reinstate community services the inmates provides, such as cleaning highways and parks. Sakai said inmates did work from Kohala to Ka‘u and at least once a project in Kona.

Hawaiian cultural programs will also be incorporated at Kulani, Sakai added. Community members have advocated for a puuhonua, defined by some proponents as a wellness center, instead of a correctional facility. Sakai said his department will work with community groups to support a puuhonua outside of Kulani, perhaps as an organization that can help offenders continue to develop skills to avoid future incarceration.

A Governor’s Executive Order in 1946 established Kulani as work camp on about 7,250 acres. Prisoners at the time livedin tents and temporary buildings, running a plant nursery and caring for cattle to provide their own food, the environmental review said. The correctional facility now sits on about 280 acres.

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