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Reopening prison is best in long run

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The Abercrombie administration’s plans to reopen the minimum-security Kulani Correctional Facility on Hawaii island took another step forward last month with the release of a draft environmental assessment and an invitation for public comment. No serious issues there; the facility, closed just three years ago and now used for at-risk youth programs, is practically a turnkey property. Preparing the prison for a new crop of inmates will cost about $600,000 and have no significant impact on the environment, the assessment said.

The bigger news is what Kulani represents. The facility will serve as a key component in the state’s ambitious and worthy Justice Reinvestment initiative, which seeks to reduce Hawaii’s prison population through common-sense reforms.

Reopening Kulani will allow 200 low-risk inmates who are near parole to prepare for their return to society in a more appropriate and less expensive setting than a high-security, steel-bar prison.

Just as important, this will free up space for higher-risk inmates now living in mainland prisons — far from home and the rehabilitative powers of family, friends, a familiar culture and local job place- ment.

Kulani is a bucolic place, with modest single-story dormitory buildings bordering rain forest about 20 miles southwest of Hilo. Opened in 1946, Kulani was once mostly self-sustaining, with plant nurseries and livestock managed by the inmates.

In recent years, inmates worked with state and federal agencies to maintain and protect the Kulani rain forest and its native flora and fauna. Many members of the community supported this prison in their backyard. Cory Harden, a Mountain View resident, told the Star-Advertiser that the planned reopening of Kulani was "wonderful news after the trauma the community went through and the way it was closed."

The Lingle administration, facing a severe budget crisis, closed Kulani in 2009 to save about $2.8 million a year. It was cheaper to send inmates to corporate-run prisons in Arizona. That much remains true: It will cost $87 a day to house an inmate at Kulani, compared to $75 a day at prisons run by the Corrections Corp. of America. But advocates of prison reform decried the closure as penny-wise and pound-foolish. Studies have shown that rehabilitation programs close to home can reduce recidivism, lowering costs in the long run.

And those costs are substantial. Hawaii’s prison population grew from 5,118 to 5,921, or 16 percent, from fiscal years 2000 to 2010, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Spending by the state Corrections Division increased 63 percent, from $112 million to $192 million, in the same period. About one-third of Hawaii’s prison population lives on the mainland, far from home and family.

The Justice Reinvestment initiative seeks to reverse this unhealthy trend through policies, built on solid data and research, that provide inmates with a better chance at surviving in the outside world through job training, sensible sentencing options and hard work. After all, the point of incarceration is not just to punish inmates. It’s to make sure they’ve learned their lessons and won’t be back.

Places like Kulani can help make this happen for inmates who want to resume productive lives in their communities. That’s better for the inmates, better for the state’s budget, better for all of us.

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