NIMBY outlook changes with the economic times


POSTED: Wednesday, August 26, 2009

There is nothing like a long-lasting recession to clear the mind and set priorities.

For instance, in the current economic malaise it turns out that the Big Island really does like prisons.

Earlier this month Gov. Linda Lingle showed the power still resting with Hawaii's governor, be it Republican or Democrat, when she announced that Kulani Correctional Facility would be closed by October and the 160 inmates scattered among Hawaii's other prisons. No public hearings, no study groups or task force recommendations, just pack your bags by October.

While other Hawaii governors have called for building more prisons as the inmate population increased, Lingle has gone from her 2002 campaign in favor of prison building to switching the state's prison policy to a “;ship 'em out of state”; plan to now actually shutting down a prison.

Kulani had never been the best place for a prison. Created in 1946, the 20-acre low-rise operation is precariously sited at the 5,000-foot elevation on Mauna Loa's east rift zone. Once its prisoners were known for making fine Koa wood furniture, although now inmates learn mechanical repair and heavy equipment operation. A majority of the inmates are sex offenders and the program boasts a low recidivism rate.

But consultants in 2003 said Kulani's problem is “;the extraordinary cost of water supply requiring catchment reservoirs and tank trucks for hauling water in the dry season.”;

Despite that, back in 1998, then-Gov. Ben Cayetano announced after months of deliberation that he would build a 2,300-bed facility near Kulani. The community uproar started, followed by the Sierra Club protests because Kulani is home to six endangered bird species. Cayetano kept on searching, thinking there must be some state land on the Big Island for a prison, but he was unable to find any that pleased the Big Island community.

That is part of the reason why Lingle ditched her own prison plans. Back when we had lots of money, no one wanted a prison next door.

Come the recession—and Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi is pleading with the Legislature to keep Kulani a prison. Besides the 76 prison employees losing their jobs, vendors who sell the prison food and supplies would also be out of luck. Hilo's economy hasn't been much of anything since the pakalolo boom of the 1980s, anyway.

Across the nation rural communities are rethinking the prison business. Paying neighbors seem a tad better than broke neighbors. Too bad that Hawaii's governor now is not interested in building prisons.