Use of former prison draws group’s protest
By Leila Fujimori
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 09, 2010
A community group that opposed the state’s shutdown of a Big Island prison is formally contesting the transfer of the Kulani Correctional Facility site to the Department of Defense for the National Guard’s Youth Challenge program.
“The board (Board of Land and Natural Resources) didn’t do their due diligence,” said Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons.
The group questions whether the Land Board overstepped its bounds by turning the land over to the Defense Department — in effect, canceling Executive Order 1225, which established its use as a prison. This action was taken without a formal document from the governor withdrawing the executive order, the petition said.
Community Alliance filed on Sept. 20 a request for a triallike hearing to contest the board’s Sept. 9 decision.
A hearing officer will assist the board in determining whether the group has any standing to bring a contested-case hearing before it. There is no timetable on when the board must rule.
Brady’s group opposed the shuttering of the facility, alleging the Department of Public Safety gradually decreased the number of inmates being sent to Kulani, resulting in its population shrinking from 200-plus inmates to 120 to help justify the decision. “What it looked like is it inflates operating costs,” she said.
With only 120 prisoners, Public Safety Director Clayton Frank cited the per-inmate cost at $110. A comparable Oahu low-security prison costs $65.
“The Department of Defense has had the keys since Nov. 20, 2009,” Brady said. “I don’t know what went on behind closed doors, but they were not ready to do anything with it.”
Frank said, “When the budget was spiraling downwards last year,” the department looked at the closure of Kulani, and the Defense Department contacted Public Safety about acquiring it.
Brady said Land Board Chairwoman Laura Thielen said at the Sept. 9 hearing that Kulani sits in the middle of a pristine rain forest.
“Then why just hand it over?” Brady asked. “They transferred the land to the state’s largest polluter. It’s a dangerous door to open.”
The board and its chairwoman would not comment on the petition, Ward said.
Brady said by transferring the land to the Defense Department, the board forecloses the option of reopening the prison or any other alternatives.
Hawaii National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony said the Guard requires an existing, nearly turnkey facility to start up a new Youth Challenge campus.
He said transfers from one state agency to another are nothing unusual, and there was never any intent to use the facility for anything other than the youth program.
“We gave our word,” Anthony said. “There are no plans to do anything other than the Youth Challenge Academy.” To do anything other than that would require going before the board again, he said.
After public opposition, the Defense Department quickly pulled its request to also use the prison site for military training. But it was simply a way of maximizing the use of that facility and not the primary purpose, Anthony said.