Big Island prison dealing with delays - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Big Island prison dealing with delays

BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Big Island prison that just reopened this summer is already struggling with delays. The Kulani Correctional Facility has room for 200 inmates, but most of the beds are still empty.

Kulani was supposed to ease overcrowding in Hawaii's prisons, making it easier to bring back inmates from the mainland. The state planned to fill the facility in five months, but officials now expect the process to take one year.

"That was the plan and it turns out that was somewhat ambitious," said Ted Sakai, director of the Public Safety Department.

Public safety officials said 59 men are housed at the prison. Hawaii News Now has learned that the main slowdown is due to inmates with medical issues who can't be placed at Kulani because of the facility's location and altitude.

"Any inmates with more serious conditions are not able to go there because of the distance from Kulani to the nearest emergency room. I believe it's 40 minutes away," explained Sakai.

Another problem involves correctional officers frequently calling in sick. Staff shortages have led to canceled inmate visits about once a month.

"If we cancel on Saturday, we will have visits on Sunday, so it's not like we go totally without visits," Sakai said.

15 of the 91 staff positions are vacant, including four jobs for correctional officers, according to public safety officials.

"We're still looking for some substance abuse counselors. Those positions aren't filled. They've proven to be more difficult to fill than originally anticipated," said Sakai.

The state expects to transfer 50 to 100 inmates to Kulani in January from the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona. Vocational training should also start next month, followed by a sex offender treatment program in February.

"It was very successful. A recidivism rate like 1% or something like that," Sakai said.

Despite the setbacks, Sakai said the reopening will eventually help to reduce Hawaii's mainland prison population. The new goal is to have the minimum-security facility filled by June.

"It's been slower. In that respect, it's been disappointing, but I expect us to get back on track fairly soon," he said.

The state closed Kulani in 2009 to save money.

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