East Hawaii News

Kulani Correctional Facility Reopens Its Doors

July 1, 2014, 7:25 PM HST
* Updated July 2, 11:39 AM
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Five years after it closed, a Big Island prison was reopened today with a ceremony attended by Gov. Neil Abercrombie and about 250 invited guests.

Kulani Correctional Facility will eventually hold about 200 minimum-security inmates, most of whom are currently incarcerated in a private mainland prison.

State prison officials have said those held at Kulani will be considered low-risk or “community custody” inmates, similar to those held at Hale Nani, Hawaii Community Correctional Center’s reintegration facility in the Panaewa area of Hilo.

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said the first 25 prisoners will arrive in about two weeks. The remainder will be brought in increments over the next five months.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Kulani Warden Ruth Forbes untying the maile lei during today's ceremony. DPS photo.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Kulani Warden Ruth Forbes untying the maile lei during today’s ceremony. DPS photo.

The 280-acre facility located at the 6,000-foot level of Mauna Loa already has a staff of 56 which will eventually be increased to 91.

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Sixteen new adult correctional officers started their basic training on Monday and will begin working at Kulani in August. Recruitment has begun for an additional 19 positions.

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The facility had been closed in 2009 by former governor Linda Lingle as a budget-cutting measure.

In the interim it hosted the Hawaii National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe Academy, which has since moved to renovated facilities at the Keaukaha Military Reservation near the Hilo airport.

Schwartz said Kulani will eventually be home to a variety of vocational training and substance abuse programs through partnerships with community providers and other state departments.

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“The Facilities Maintenance Program teaches the inmates important trade skills like carpentry, drywall, solar installation, and electrical and plumbing fundamentals,” Kulani Warden Ruth Coller Forbes said in a statement.

Kulani Correctional Facility's administration building. DPS photo.

Kulani Correctional Facility’s administration building. DPS photo.

“The inmates will be helping to maintain and upgrade Kulani while learning important trade skills,” she said. “We want them to leave Kulani as self-sufficient, productive members of society and never come back.”

DPS officials are also working with the state departments of agriculture and labor to develop agriculture programs to provide inmates with work skills and the facility with fresh produce.

The day’s events were not without controversy.

A group which has gone to court over the opening of the Kulani Correctional Facility is crying foul after its members were prevented today from driving to the prison for a protest.

Ohana Ho`opakele members had previously announced their intention to stage a protest outside Kulani’s gate during today’s opening ceremonies at the prison located at the end of Stainback Highway.

However, when they attempted to do so this morning, they encountered a roadblock set up at the intersection of Stainback and North Kulani Road, Ohana Ho`opakele member Jim Albertini said.

According to Albertini, deputies from the Sheriff Division of the state Department of Public Safety who were manning the roadblock were allowing only those on an invitation list for the ceremony to drive the remaining eight or so miles to Kulani.

Albertini has sent a letter to county and state officials saying he believes that the blocking of the access on a public road is a violation of the protesters’ civil rights.

Jim Albertini. File photo.

Jim Albertini. File photo.

“We of Ohana Ho’opakele were all blocked from proceeding to the main gate area to conduct our peaceful protest of the Kulani reactivation ceremony and even a hunter who wanted to look for his lost dog was turned away,” Albertini’s letter said.

He said the only explanation he was given was that it was a “state operation.”

According to Schwartz, the Department of Public Safety has an easement for that stretch of Stainback Highway related to security for the prison.

She said the checkpoint was placed at the only location feasible for turning vehicles around.

Schwartz noted access to the lands along Stainback, which is a state highway, for hunting or other purposes requires a permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

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