After more than four-and-a-half years of being shuttered due to budget cuts during the Great Recession, the Kulani Correctional Facility re-opened in Hilo Tuesday. The minimum security prison will receive its first 25 inmates over the next two weeks before reaching a population of 200 inmates over the next five months.
The 279-acre prison in the middle of a Big Island forest reserve will offer a variety of programs to rehabilitate inmates and teach them new skills.
"The inmates will have a large part in maintaining the facility, so they're going to have those skills – the plumbing, the small electrical skills, small engine repair," said Public Safety Director Ted Sakai.
The state estimates it will cost $5.9 million per year to operate and maintain Kulani, and its re-opening marks another step forward in Gov. Neil Abercrombie's Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which aims to reverse crime while bringing inmates housed on the mainland back to The Islands. As of June 23, there were 4,135 inmates housed in Hawaii and another 1,363 at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona.
"Incarceration is not an end in itself," the governor told reporters. "It has to help be a path toward something else."
Before its closure, Kulani was home to one of the state's most successful sex offender treatment programs in the state. At this point, it's not known whether the program will return.
"What we're looking at right now, is can we get the quality treatment providers back here on this island," said Sakai.
While prison officials and dignitaries celebrated Kulani's rebirth Tuesday, about a dozen protestors with the group Ohana Hoopakele were kept several miles away on Stainback Hawaii. The protestors are demanding Kulani be transformed into pu'uhonua, a place of refuge and healing, and lost a court battle Monday to stop the prison from re-opening.
"We wanted a pu'uhonua for Hawaiians only because of the numbers (in prison) and a change of philosophy of punishment to healing," said Ohana Hoopakele president Palikapu Dedman.
There are 56 employees currently working at Kulani. Sixteen new adult corrections officers started basic training on June 30 and will begin their jobs at the prison upon graduation in August. In addition, 19 more positions are in various stages of recruitment.
In anticipation of the reopening, $686,400 was allocated for construction and renovation of the facility. The ongoing work includes electrical upgrades, new kitchen equipment, roofing repairs and other minor repairs around the prison.