Six Hawaii inmates in private prisons in Arizona are suing the state of Hawaii and the prison operator for allegedly violating their constitutional rights by denying them free exercise of their native Hawaiian religious practices.
Inmates Richard Kapela Davis, Michael Hughes, Damien Kaahu, Robert A. Holbron, James Kane III and Ellington Keawe say the staffs at Saguaro and Red Rock correctional centers, both in Eloy, Ariz., have consistently denied written requests to practice their religion, to establish a sacred place in the prison yard and to have access to a spiritual adviser and sacred items.
The operator of both facilities, Corrections Corp. of America, houses the inmates in two facilities in Arizona under contract with the state of Hawaii.
One of the practices the inmates say they have been denied is a daily gathering outdoors with other native Hawaiian inmates at sunrise for chanting, dancing and prayer.
CCA says it puts a lot of effort into accommodating the cultural and religious needs of Hawaii inmates "within the parameters of the safety and security of the inmates, prison staff and the public," said Steve Owen, CCA public affairs director.
Saguaro Warden Todd Thomas said, "We’re in full compliance with federal law."
Owen said the state periodically sends native Hawaiian religious and cultural practitioners to Arizona to provide guidance.
Andrew Sprenger, a lawyer with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the six inmates, said the person whom the state approved to visit the Arizona prisons does so infrequently and does not provide the inmates spiritual guidance.
CCA said some inmates participate in a Hawaiian spiritual and cultural group and in opening and closing ceremonies for makahiki.
The Arizona inmates say in their lawsuit that the closing ceremony for this past makahiki season was conducted six weeks early. They also allege that prison staff authorizes only certain inmates to supervise, lead, control and teach educational classes concerning Hawaiian culture, language and history.
In Hawaii, inmates at Halawa Correctional Center are allowed to celebrate makahiki and to construct an outdoor altar for the ceremonies, said Michael Hoffman, Institutions Division director of the state Department of Public Safety. Sprenger said no inmates in Hawaii prisons have complained about not being able to observe religious practices.