NOTE: This story was produced for our TV program on Na Leo o Hawaii and uploaded to YouTube in January 2013, but it was only posted to our website in December 2013 as a part of our Best of 2013 series.
HAWAII ISLAND – Up on the remote slopes of Mauna Loa, at the end of Stainback Highway, Kulani prepares to undergo another change.
Currently, the former correctional facility serves as home to the Hawaii National Guard’s Youth Challenge Academy. But lawmakers are planning to return the site to its former use. The re-opening of Kulani Correctional facility has been in the works ever since Governor Neil Abercrombie took office in 2010.
During the recent state of the state address, the governor spoke of his plan. Later that same day, a public hearing was held in Hilo on the re-opening of Kulani. Ted Sakai, the state’s Public Saftey Director, was on hand to answer questions.
The prison was closed in July of 2009, under the administration of Linda Lingle. The announcement of decision came suddenly. State officials planned to turn the facility over to the Hawaii National Guard for use as a second location for the Youth ChalleNGE academy for troubled teens. The para-military school already had a campus on Oahu.
Offenders would be imprisoned elsewhere, many shipped out of state to Arizona.
A few days later, a big hearing was held between state lawmakers, county officials, and the public… concerning the impacts of the shutdown.
Today, Ted Sakai agrees: finding substantial savings, depends on how you look at the issue.
Also, when Kulani closed, many corrections officers lost their jobs. Attorney Ted Hong represented the employees of the United Public Workers’ Hawaii Division, who said their own union failed to handle the situation properly. The union members even picketed… outside their own union.
Last week we asked Sakai about these displaced workers, and whether or not they would be first in line for a job.
At the recent meeting in Hilo, Sakai heard a lot about the puuhonua concept, from a passionate group known as Ohana Hoopakele. In 2009, the prison closure prompted this press conference by the group outside the Hale Kaulike courthouse in Hilo.
Led by Sam Kaleleiki, the group began to promote their idea of a puuhonua at Kulani. Meanhwile, the Lingle administration charged full steam ahead with the Youth ChalleNGE academy. The National Guard program was in place by the time she stepped down from office.
Then a new administration, and a new philosophy. Governor Neil Abercrombie took over, and promised to bring the prisoners back to the islands. The Youth ChalleNGe academy would have to be relocated, of course, most likely to the military reserve in Keaukaha.
And surprisingly, Ohana Hoopakele’s push for a puuhonua gained traction at the state legislature.
Last session, a number of bills were passed regarding Kulani and the state’s approach to incarceration. Among them… the puuhonua concept, with a preference to investigate using the site at Kulani for the program. The governor signed the bill into law. Ohana Hoopakele celebrated with a hoolaluea at Makuu Farmers Market in Puna. However, the joy was tempered with the impression that the state would not fully embrace their vision for the prison alternative.
Sure enough, when the state officially announced its intention to reopen Kulani, the environmental assessment made no mention of the puuhonua.
During last week’s hearing, representatives from Ohana Ho’opakele spoke up.
The state will hold another hearing January 31st in Keaau.