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Isle inmates in Arizona win class-action status for religion suit

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Inmates who say they’re being denied their right to practice their Native Hawaiian religion at a private prison in Arizona have won class-action status for a lawsuit.

U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi granted class-action certification to inmates suing the state of Hawaii and the Corrections Corporation of America.

The class covers inmates who follow Native Hawaiian spiritual practices and are serving sentences at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona.

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety pays the Corrections Corporation of America to house Hawaii inmates at Saguaro. Neither organization immediately returned email messages seeking comment on Saturday.

Kobayashi’s ruling Tuesday said 179 inmates at Saguaro have registered as practitioners of Native Hawaiian religion.

The inmates are the second-largest faith group in the prison, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, a nonprofit legal-rights law firm representing the plaintiffs, said Friday.

Eight inmates sued in 2011 after prison officials prevented them from gathering for daily outdoor worship and confiscated objects vital to their religious practice, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation said Friday in a news release.

The inmates say their religious practices are a vital component of their rehabilitation and of their reclaiming their identity as kanaka maoli, or Native Hawaiians.

“This is my opportunity to come back to the path that I was raised to be on,” class member Robert Bronco said in the release. “I know what it is to be Hawaiian. But I disconnected myself from my kupuna (elders) when I went on the wrong path that led me to prison.”

Hawaii houses inmates at Saguaro because it doesn’t have enough space to hold them in the islands.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has pursued plans to bring Hawaii’s inmates home from the mainland. Even so, the state awarded a three-year, $136.5 million contract to the Corrections Corporation of America in 2011 so it could continue keeping inmates in Arizona.

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