State releases $250K to plan possible Kulani prison reopening


HILO — Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Friday released $248,177 to plan for the possible reactivation of Kulani Correctional Facility.

Located at the end of Stainback Highway 20 miles south of Hilo, the Kulani facility was opened in 1946 as a work camp and later converted into a minimum-security prison. The last of its 123 male inmates, many of them sexual offenders, were transferred to other Hawaii prisons in September 2009.

The decision to close Kulani was made in mid-2009 by then-Gov. Linda Lingle as the state faced a $786 million deficit.

The funds to plan for the facility’s reopening were approved this past legislative session. The Abercrombie administration has been considering for more than a year now relocating as many as 200 inmates to the prison on the slopes of Mauna Loa.

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, emphasized that reopening the prison “is not a final decision yet.”

“We want it to; we’re hoping it will, but this is just a beginning step in seeing if we can do it,” she said.” We want to make sure we do it right and go through all the steps in the possible reactivation.” Schwartz added that funds will “help us do environmental assessments and help with infrastructure like water, sewer, electrical conditions.”

One of the reasons the state is taking a hard look at Kulani’s reactivation is the so-called Justice Reinvestment Initiative that Abercrombie has tasked interim DPS Director Ted Sakai with implementing. Sakai, who was DPS director from 1998 to 2002, was reinstalled in his old position in May. About 1,700 Hawaii prisoners are now housed in private mainland prisons. Abercrombie pledged in December to bring them back to Hawaii in the wake of a Circuit Court lawsuit on behalf of 18 Hawaii inmates who alleged they were beaten and their families threatened after a guard at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., suffered injuries while trying to quell a fight.

The suit named Corrections Corporation of America, which operates Saguaro, the state of Hawaii, and John Ioane, the state’s contract monitor, as defendants.

State Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, Kohala, has been a proponent of reactivating Kulani and says he’s “hopeful” it could happen.

“People should serve their time, but it’s also good that families can remain intact and visit their family members. That contributes to people getting better,” he said. “Also, it’s jobs here, and anything we can do these days to keep jobs here is good.”

In November 2010, the 614-acre prison property was put under state Department of Defense control for use as a training camp for at-risk teens, called the Hawaii National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe Academy-Kulani.

“We also have to make sure the needs of the Department of Defense and Department of Land and Natural Resources are met, because they’re also using that land right now, and we have to respect them, as well,” Schwartz said. “We’re gonna have to meet with them. We have to help them out and make sure that they find an adequate relocation site and work with them to make sure that everyone is on board with whatever the final decision comes to.”

One possibility brought up in past discussions about the possibility of Kulani reopening is moving the Guard’s youth academy to the recently renovated Keaukaha Military Reservation.

“I have little doubt that a group of us will come together with the support of a grant-in-aid for resources to help them relocate or continue their program, because they do great stuff,” Green said. “There should be no casualties in this program.”