Two visions for Kulani prison: Lawmakers consider a new plan for the closed facility

Alan McNarie

HILO—When Hawai‘i Island’s Kulani Correctional Facility closed last year, the site quickly found a new tenant. The United States National Guard plans to open a new branch of its Youth ChalleNGe Academy in 2011, which will provide housing and education to about 100 “at-risk youth” in buildings that once held the State’s sex offender treatment program. 

But some Hawai‘i residents question why the military is involved in public education. And the State Legislature is considering another plan that would use Kulani for a new pu‘uhonua – a place of refuge – where prisoners could undergo a program based on the Hawaiian custom of ho‘oponopono, or reconciliation.

A military vision

According to National Guard spokesperson Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony, the Youth ChalleNGe Academy is designed to give high school dropouts their last best chance of getting a diploma by instilling military discipline.

“They wear uniforms, they march in formation, they get up early, they do calisthenics, they run,” Anthony said. “It’s very similar to what basic trainees might do in the military. ... It’s amazing how many of these kids actually thrive better in a highly structured environment.”

But some community members question whether the military is the best branch of government to handle kids.

“The military’s becoming the family for kids,” says Catherine Kennedy, who gives presentations in Hawai?i Island schools to counterbalance the efforts of military recruiters. “It’s the strict mom and dad. It’s the tough love for kids. That’s one of the problems that I have with the military. It’s not a caring, understanding family. It’s a disciplinary family, it’s an authoritarian family, it’s a sexist family.”

So why is the National Guard is in the education business? 

“Because we’ve been doing it for a long time now,” Anthony answers. 

The program, he says, started in ten other states in 1993. The Hawai‘i National Guard opened a Youth Challenge Academy in a former Navy barracks at Kalaeloa on O‘ahu in 1994. That program has been operating ever since, working with about 100 to 150 students at a time. 

The majority of the academy’s funding comes from the federal government. Most of its classroom instructors, Anthony says, come from the Department of Education; National Guard personnel do administration and handle the disciplinary training. 

“When you’re designing a program to help instill discipline in teens, who better than the National Guard cadre to help do that?” Anthony said.

Some critics note the National Guard has a conflict of interest: It needs young bodies to fill out its ranks. And “youth at risk,” especially minorities and kids from lower-class homes, could be especially vulnerable to military recruitment. 

“The way that the military has capitalized on the economic downturn is to cast itself as the only alternative for education and a career,” said Kyle Kajihiro of the American Friends Service Committee. “We call that the ‘poverty draft.’”

Academy opponents can point to examples such as that of Wilson Algrim, an orphan from Colombia who was adopted by a Michigan couple. He’d never attended school in Colombia, and had difficulty in American public schools, but he graduated from Michigan’s Youth Challenge Academy and then enlisted in the Michigan National Guard. In 2006, two days before Christmas, he was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. 

At least two Hawai‘i Youth ChalleNGe graduates, Marine Lance Corporal Kristen K. Marino and Marine Private Lewis T.D. Calapini, also have died in Iraq. 

“The National Guard certainly doesn’t want to look at the Youth ChalleNGe Academy as a recruiting tool,” Anthony maintains. “We really try to discourage [academy graduates from immediately joining the Guard] because in a lot of cases they may not have come from an environment that was conducive to keeping them on the right path. ... We’d really be interested in their going away from Hawai‘i for a while to gain some maturity.”

The National Guard’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Robert G. F. Lee, is more explicit about how graduates could “go away.”

“We offer them as an option joining the Guard,” he said, adding, “We feel that probably active duty [is a better method of] just getting away from the islands and continuing to be successful.”

Lee says about 20 percent of the academy’s graduates join some branch of the armed services after graduating. A Department of Education survey of the state’s high school seniors, in contrast, found that only eight percent of them planned to join the military. 

“Recruiters can talk to cadets, but the amount of access they can have to cadets is really less than they have at a regular high school,” Anthony maintains.

But if students in the current program want to see a recruiter, they don’t have far to go. An online memo, dated September 3, 2009, announced a “New Hawaii Recruiting Location!” serving both the Army and Air National Guards, in Kalaeloa, “adjacent to the Hawai‘i Youth ChalleNGe facility.”

Lee says Hawai‘i National Guard headquarters is also in Kalaeloa. The new recruiting station, he said, is “really to serve us.”

“We won’t have a recruiting office up at Kulani,” he added.

According to Lee, most of the academy’s 2,700 graduates have left with the equivalents of a high school diplomas and with significant increases in reading and math skills.Youth Challenge websites nationwide carry dozens of glowing testimonials from graduates.

But the future isn’t always bright for academy graduates. In 2004, the Honolulu Advertiser reported on a Youth Challenge commencement in which the guest speaker, an Academy graduate, warned new graduates against going back to their old habits. He said he didn’t turn his own life around until he joined the military, and that when he’d tried to look up his four closest friends from his academy days, he learned that one was in prison and three were dead. 

A Hawaiian vision

Ron Fujiyoshi, a Hilo minister involved in a Hilo restorative justice group Ohana Ho?opakele, has a different vision for Kulani.

“We are hoping that the plan from the Department of Defense is not going to go through, and so we can use the Kulani place as the site for a pu‘uhonua,” he said.

A pu‘uhonua, in Hawaiian tradition, is a refuge for criminals and for those fleeing war. According to Ohana Ho‘opakele’s president, Sam Kaleleiki, Jr, criminals staying at the pu‘uhonua can undergo ho‘oponopono, or “making right the wrong,” a traditional process in which members of both the offender’s and the victim’s extended families participate to remedy the injury so the offender can go home.

“If they did wrong, they go and rehabilitate,” Kaleleiki said, “but [they are] not punished.”

Puna State Rep. Faye Hanohano, a former Kulani corrections officer, has introduced House Bill 2567, calling for the Department of Public Safety to establish a pu‘uhonua, preferably at Kulani.

Public Safety Director Clayton Frank submitted written testimony against the bill, citing his department’s memorandum of agreement with the State Department of Defense about Youth ChalleNGe, the danger of co-mingling youth and adult prisoners, budget concerns and possible liabilities for alleged ethnic discrimination.

“As written, HB 2657, HD1 could be seen as prejudicial or discriminatory as other ethics (sic) groups would not be provided with the same and/or similar programs,” Frank wrote.

Fujiyoshi calls that argument “crazy.” And at continental U.S. prisons with Hawaii prisoners, he points out, ceremonies marking the beginning and end of makahiki are already held, and both non-Hawaiians and Hawaiians participate. The pu‘uhonua would be open to prisoners of all ethnicities, he said.

The current correctional system could already be charged with ethnic bias—in favor of European-American values—he added.

“The Western system is so individualistic that they put all the emphasis on the individual to go straight,” Fujiyoshi said. 

Lee and Anthony as well as Fujiyoshi and Kalaleiki all see links between social environment and crime. But while the National Guardsmen talk about getting kids away from Hawaii, the Hawaiians say the criminal and the community must be healed together.

“Right now they’re taking about 2000 of our men out to Saguaro (a private prison in Arizona),” says Fujiyoshi. “There’s no healing in that. You’re building alienation instead of healing. ... We need to bring them back to the extended families of their communities and get the healthiest members of those communities involved in the healing process.”

Kaleleiki sees another cultural trait in the current penal system.

“This boils down to money. This is the American way of doing things,” he said.

The state would have to find money for the pu‘uhonua, while the Guard expects to have a $1.2 million federal grant for its new campus—although Hanohano notes that it doesn’t have that grant yet. Even if the grant happens, the State will still need to come up with another $400,000. 

But if money becomes available, Hawai‘i may not have to choose between the two visions. Hanohano believes that even if the Youth Challenge program goes into the old prison, a pu‘uhonua still could be built on pastureland from the prison’s farm. Fujiyoshi says his group is also looking at another tract a few miles makai of the prison complex.

Bill 2657 has crossed over from the State House of Representatives to the Senate, where it passed the Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee and is currently scheduled to be heard by the Ways and Means Committee.