Court grants inmate class action in Native Hawaiian religion case

LIHUE — A federal judge has allowed a civil rights case to move forward as a class action for Native Hawaiian inmates of a Mainland prison facility in their equal protection case over the exercise of religion.

U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi of the Honolulu District, on Sept. 30, ruled in part for the inmates against the state and its private prison operator, Corrections Corporation of America. The case is set for trial in federal court in March.

“We had a number of hurdles to get past,” said attorney Sharla Manley of the Honolulu nonprofit Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, representing the inmates.

DPS Spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said as of Sept. 30, there were 1,395 inmates from Hawaii serving at the CCA’s Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona. There are 47 inmates that started their sentence at Kauai Community Correctional Center.

Manley said DPS and CCA initially tried to have the case moved to Arizona. It took until June for the court to deny the defendant’s summary judgment motion that would have dismissed the case. As a class action, the suit would establish a relief class for inmates sentenced in Hawaii and confined to Saguaro.

“The June ruling is important because even though we have to prove this case at trial, a lot of prison reform cases are about summary judgements and showing that you have enough evidence,” Manley said. “This is very encouraging about where things stand and we are concerned about making sure we get relief for these guys.”

The inmates claim to be the second-largest faith group, and allege just 7 percent of about 200 practitioners of the Native Hawaiian religion attend functions for fear of retaliatory action. The suit seeks relief against discouragement of group worship and access to sacred spaces.

The complaint alleges confiscations of personal amulets, ohe hano ihu (bamboo nose flute), ohe hano ihu (coconut oil), and malo, kihei and pau native garments.

Religious practices are a vital component of rehabilitation and re-claiming cultural identity.

According to CCA spokesman Steve Owen, there are rehabilitative and re-entry programs, including accommodation for Native Hawaiian religious practices and expression that meet or exceed constitutional requirements.

A class action does not constitute a decision on whether any civil rights violations have occurred. CCA has worked to address the issues of the plaintiffs since the start and a fair resolution will be sought in court, he added.

“We’ve always acted in good faith to strike a balance between the religious and cultural needs of the Native Hawaiian inmate population while remaining sensitive to legitimate operational safety and security concerns,” said Owen, who is based in Nashville.

The class certification means the case is heard on behalf of all named in the original suit.

“This is not a delegated responsibility, Manley said. “Our view of this is that the the state remains responsible.”

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