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Official: Prison could aid local economy


Tribune-Herald staff writer

The proposed reopening of East Hawaii’s Kulani prison will return more than $4.7 million to the local economy, according to state Public Safety Interim Director Ted Sakai.

That amounts to 90 new jobs, he said, while also helping to foster lower recidivism rates of inmates.

Sakai spoke to about 30 members of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce for a little over an hour and a half on Thursday evening, presenting the plan to reactivate Kulani Correctional Facility, which was shut down by Linda Lingle’s administration in 2009 as an emergency cost-saving measure.

The facility, which dates back to the 1940s, is located on 614 acres of forest land on the slopes of Mauna Kea, about 20 miles southwest of Hilo. Since November 2010, it has operated under the state Department of Defense as a training camp for at-risk teens, called the Hawaii National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe Academy-Kulani.

Sakai told attendees that, should the Legislature approve the plan to relaunch the prison, the Public Safety Department would be ready to move quickly. Gov. Neil Abercrombie has made a priority of returning Hawaii’s inmates to the state. In August, he released $250,000 to plan the Kulani reopening.

As for when that might happen, Sakai said much hinges on finding a new location for the ChalleNGe Academy.

“We want to make sure their needs are taken care of,” he said. “They have said they are more interested in relocating closer to Hilo, and the Department of Defense is working on that.

During a question and answer period after his presentation, Sakai said that currently the ChalleNGe program is eyeing the Keaukaha Military Reservation near the Hilo airport.

Sakai explained that the Kulani facility acted as an important link in the state prison system’s “decompression system” of graduated release for inmates.

Prior to its closure, inmates from higher security facilities were transferred to Kulani in a step-down process, before sending them to community facilities like Hale Nani Correctional Facility, and then on to re-entry into society.

“It helps them to adjust,” he said. “When Kulani closed down, we lost an important piece in the whole process.”

Currently, the state is paying $65 a day per inmate to house 1,600 people at a private correctional facility in Arizona, he said. Estimates are that Kulani would cost about $80 a day to operate.

But, he said, in the long run, those costs would end up saving the state money, by injecting the funds back into the local economy, rather than being spent on the mainland. And, he said, by keeping inmates on-island, recidivism rates remain lower, costing the state less money to house them after possible future infractions.

“Sending them from Arizona to Hale Nani, that’s a huge step for them (inmates). … We would rather reopen Kulani to where it was,” he said.

Attendees of Sakai’s talk also expressed the importance of keeping inmates on-island so that families would be able to visit them. State Sen. Gil Kahele recalled hearing from a woman who complained about not being able to visit her son when being kept at a facility so far from home.

“I think it was a bad decision of the previous administration to close Kulani,” Kahele said.

Sakai said that in terms of infrastructure at the facility, little will be needed in the way of renovation to get it back up and running. Mainly, it will require some new kitchen equipment and new rewiring, he said.

“The National Guard has really taken great care of it,” he said. “For the most part, it’s almost good to go.”

Prior to its closure, the facility, which operates on a large catchment system, had experienced some water shortages, requiring long trips by water tankers through 19 miles of forest, he added. But plans are in the works to build a new laundry facility at Hale Nani, which would then handle Kulani’s laundry as well.

“We believe that should reduce the usage,” he said.

Sakai said that the state will announce in January a series of public hearings concerning the Kulani plans.

Email Colin M. Stewart at


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