State lawmakers get firsthand look at Kulani prison facility
By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
More than a dozen green and yellow buildings lie largely dormant, acting as a quiet outpost deep in the Waiakea forest.
But by this time next year, that is expected to change.
The Kulani Correctional Facility, closed in 2009 due to budget cutbacks, is planned to reopen July 1, providing the state a place for up to 200 Hawaii Island criminals, possibly some currently held in mainland prisons.
The minimum-security prison at the end of Stainback Highway will provide 76 jobs.
Max Otani, state deputy director of corrections, said the Department of Public Safety is looking to fill administrative positions and plans to hire its staff in phases before the facility is officially reopened.
Former employees are given preference.
The 45-acre facility has been largely mothballed since it was closed, but it has been kept in some use by the National Guard’s Hawaii Youth ChalleNGe Academy.
Repairs that are needed are minimal, and some electrical work has already begun, said Toni Schwartz, DPS spokeswoman.
Other work will include new kitchen equipment and some reroofing.
Overall, the prison has kept in good condition, Schwartz said.
“If we wanted to move in tomorrow, we would,” she said.
An environmental impact statement done in 2012 pegged reopening of the facility no later than 2014.
Schwartz said the state is trying to accommodate the academy’s timetable for moving to a new location at the Keaukaha Military Reserve.
“We are working with them with the transition and we’re not going to rush it,” she said.
Col. Gary Thomas, deputy director of the academy, said the organization is receiving $5.3 million in state and federal funding to build its own facility.
It expects to begin using the military reserve as soon as it moves out.
“We won’t miss a beat,” Thomas said.
About 40 cadets use the academy.
A group of legislators, mostly members of the state House Finance Committee, were given a tour of the complex Friday.
Several commented on the good condition of the facility, with credit given to the academy.
“I’m impressed with how well they looked after it,” said Rep. Richard Onishi, a Democrat who sits on the Finance Committee and represents the isle’s third district.
The Legislature has committed funding to reopen the prison, with $2.4 million for 2014 for reactivation and operation costs. About $600,000 was set aside for repairs.
Onishi said the reopening will be good for the isle, due to the economic impact, as well as for the inmates, who can stay closer to home and likely receive better services.
“I think it has a multiplier effect,” he said.
The prison will cost about $2.5 million a year in operations.
Hawaii Island inmates are now sent to prisons elsewhere in the state or to mainland facilities, mostly in Arizona.
Mainland prisons housed about 1,700 Hawaii inmates, or about 30 percent of the state’s prisoners, as of September 2012.
DPS intends to use Kulani for Hawaii Island criminals who meet the minimum-security qualifications.
The reopening could also result in the relocation of some inmates on the mainland back to Hawaii, Schwartz said. But how many remains to be seen.
While it’s the state’s goal to reduce the number of prisoners it sends to mainland facilities, it’s unclear how soon that could be substantially reduced.
About 1,400 inmates are held in Arizona, said Rep. Henry Aquino, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, while on the tour.
“It’s going to be a while” before that number gets below 500, Otani said.
Along with reopening Kulani, the Legislature is also taking a look at other ways to reduce the state’s inmate population on the mainland, including sentencing alternatives, said Aquino, a Democrat representing District 38 on Oahu.
“We’re looking at long-term costs,” he said, adding the state is on the “right track.”
“I think this is a continual process.”
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.
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