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State appoints prisons veteran to run Kulani facility

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    Ruth Coller Forbes will oversee 200 low-risk inmates when Kulani Correctional Facility reopens in July near Hilo.

An 18-year state prison official, Ruth Coller Forbes, will oversee 200 low-risk inmates when Kulani Correctional Facility reopens in July near Hilo.

Kulani, which is located on the slopes of Mauna Kea about 20 miles southwest of Hilo, was closed by Gov. Linda Lingle in 2009 because of costs and was turned over to the state Department of Defense for use as an at-risk youth program campus.

Kulani will staff 96 full-time positions and will accommodate approximately 200 low-risk inmates. 

In announcing Forbes’ appointment, State Public Safety Director Ted Sakai today said: "Ruth has a broad knowledge of corrections and management. She is a valuable asset to the department and is committed to carrying out our mission." I am confident Kulani will benefit from her leadership and years of experience." 

Forbes started with the Department of Public Safety as an adult corrections officer at the Women’s Community Correctional Center in June 1995. From 1998 to 2000 she served as a human services professional at the Hawaii Intake Service Center. Forbes worked at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center as a human services professional from 2000 to 2006.

In January 2006, Forbes was promoted to corrections supervisor at Hawaii Community Correctional Center.

Forbes earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the College of St. Benedict, Minn., and a masters in criminal justice administration from Chaminade University. 

Under a $600,000 renovation plan, Kulani will be getting new kitchen equipment and undergo other minor repairs. The electrical upgrades suggested in a July environmental assessment are currently underway. 

In July, a 200-page assessment prepared by R.M. Towell Corp. found "no significant environmental impact" for reopening Kulani Correctional Facility.

The state assessment said there will be long-term positive impacts in reopening the correctional facility closed by Lingle because of budgetary problems, namely, job creation or reinstatement for staff and continued use of a fully functional state-owned facility.

The report said reopening Kulani, which sits on 280 acres near the Stainback Highway, is not expected to adversely impact natural or cultural resources.

The state said inmates assigned to Kulani will be transferred from in-state facilities, allowing for the return to Hawaii of inmates currently serving sentences in Mainland correctional facilities. Hawaii inmates are imprisoned in Arizona at two facilities: Saguaro and Red Rock Correctional Center.

About 30 percent of Hawaii inmates are now incarcerated in mainland prisons.

Forbes started her new job as warden earlier this week.

"Ruth will be jumping right in to her role as Warden," said Deputy Director for Corrections Max Otani. "The priority in the next six months, as we prepare for the official reopening of Kulani, will be to hire all the staff, establish and test operational policies and procedures, and organize the purchase of equipment and supplies." 

The Department of Public Safety said the reactivation of Kulani will help with the Abercrombie Administration’s goal to bring out-of-state prisoners back to Hawaii and is consistent with Hawaii’s participation in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative which began over a year ago. The JRI strategy is a "data-driven" plan to reduce spending on corrections, reinvest savings generated in strategies that would reverse crime trends and eventually bring inmates housed in Arizona back to Hawaii. 

In August, Ohana Hoopakele, which promotes rehabilitation programs that are based on Hawaiian cultural practices, filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s finding that reopening the minimum-security prison will have no significant environmental impact. The lawsuit claims the state failed to consider the Kulani Correctional Facility as a site for a wellness center.

In response, Sakai said Hawaiian cultural programs will be incorporated at Kulani.

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