HILO — A large crowd made a strong plea for “restorative justice” programs in the new Kulani Correctional Facility at a hearing Thursday night in Keaau.
State Department of Public Safety Interim Director Ted Sakai led discussions on an environmental assessment of plans to reopen the minimum-security prison 20 miles southwest of Hilo that was closed in 2009.
The proposed reopening of Kulani supports Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s goals to bring back Hawaii prisoners housed at mainland prisons, reduce spending on corrections and reinvest savings generated in strategies that “will reverse recent crime trends,” said the study.
Most of the audience of more than 60 people focused on instilling the concept of puuhonua, or refuge, where inmates can be rehabilitated through programs that would make them productive members of the community before their release from prison.
DPS plans to relocate some 200 inmates from other Hawaii facilities in the state to Kulani, clearing room to bring inmates housed at prisons on the mainland back to facilities in Hawaii. Kulani is scheduled to reopen in July 2014, Sakai said.
About 30 percent of Hawaii’s 6,000 prisoners are housed at facilities located on the mainland, and reopening Kulani would provide more social support to inmates by having them closer to family, friends, a familiar culture, local staff and potential employment following release, said the EIS.
“We’re wasting money on out-of-state corrections,” said Joe Tassil, who helped establish Hale Hoopuna in Kona in the 1970s. “They are all profit, nothing to do with rehabilitation. Puuhonua is going to bring back values.”
David Winett of Kailua-Kona said Kulani “has an excellent opportunity to establish a traditional program — a Puuhonua or Wellness Center — at Kulani, which could serve as a valuable pilot program that could be rigorously evaluated to determine the effectiveness of using these traditional methods.”
Winett, a former warden in the California Department of Corrections, said, “the concept of restorative justice, where the community is directly involved with offenders, is proving to be an effective and cost-efficient public safety alternative to extremely expensive, control-oriented incarceration.”
Kulani also had a high community profile, playing a major role in the preservation of the Kulani rain forest through work with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, U.S. Geological Survey and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and providing community service in local projects such as cleaning highways, parks, and other facilities. These programs are slated to resume with the reopening of Kulani, Sakai said.
Former Kulani warden Pete McDonald said inmates had performed work in the community valued at $2.5 million before the facility was closed.
Clifford Murakami of Pacific Architects, a Honolulu firm that prepared the EA, completed in September, said the Kulani facilities are in good shape, and the EA estimated the budget to restore existing dormitories, workshops, dining facilities and administrative spaces at $600,000.
The 280-acre Kulani facility is located at the end of the 19-mile Stainback Highway and is currently in use by the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy operated by the state Department of Defense. Sakai said HNG officials told him that the facility is too large and ill-suited for the youth academy and that plans are to relocate it to the Keaukaha military reservation.
Sakai said the Kulani inmates would be screened for low escape risks, and would be close to their parole or release dates, making it “a very important step for them.” Kulani has no fences that keep the inmates in.
All of the inmates will be working in some kind of educational program, Sakai said, and their “readiness for release into the community will be tested in community service work lines.”
“The prison system has not worked for 200 years,” said Sam Kaleleiki of Puna. “If we let them continue the way we’ve been doing, we’re stupid. We either succeed or go down the drain.”
Sakai said he wants “very much” to see this type of program on all islands in Hawaii and he is partnering with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs “to make sure we do it right.” But in addressing concerns that restorative justice programs were not adequately addressed in the EA, he said “we didn’t have enough time to develop a good plan.”
“I’m not saying we aren’t going to do it, we’re saying we don’t have the plan yet,” Sakai said. “We’ll invite all restorative justice programs to work with us. As we get the word out about what we want to do at Kulani more groups will come forward,” Sakai said.
Lacy Purdy, who was a prison inmate in 2000, received her master’s degree in social work recently at University of Hawaii at Hilo. She also supported puuhonua. “I needed to get back to my roots,” she said. “Our families suffer tremendously for the bad choices we made.
“If you rebuild a person, you can build their family, it trickles down into the community. Give them an opportunity to make better decisions.”