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Hawaiian Prisoners’ Religious Freedom Lawsuit Certified as Class Action

Native Hawaiians have a rich religious history, with elaborate rituals and sacred objects, which is a significant part of their culture.  Interference with the free exercise of these traditional religious practices at Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona where they were confined resulted in a 2011 lawsuit filed in federal district court in Honolulu, Hawaii.  On September 30, 2014, that lawsuit was certified for class action status.

Plaintiffs who were practitioners of the native Hawaiian religion based their lawsuit upon the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act 42 U.S.C. Section 2000, et seq. (RLUIPA), and included 159 individuals who were determined by the district court to have been denied the free exercise of their religious rites.  Affected parties were divided in three general classes, including general population, administrative segregation, and protective custody.    All had alleged that they suffered interference with daily, outdoor, and group worship; lack of daily access to personal amulets and ‘ohe hano ihu (bamboo nose flute); coconut oil, and malo, kihei, and pau (native garments).

Prisoner rights experts and religious figures all agree that the free exercise of a prisoner’s religious beliefs is a key component of prisoner rehabilitation.  Based upon their decisions on the subject, federal courts agree, and have little sympathy with correctional policies that interfere with such “free exercise.”  The native Hawaiian prisoners have maintained that religious freedom is an important element of maintaining their “kanaka maoli,” or island identity, while in custody far from their islands.

"This is my opportunity to come back to the path I was raised to be on.  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,” said class member Robert Bronco.

The lawsuit also highlighted problems that generally arise when one state’s prisoners are confined in another state, far from their friends and families, and support systems.  The drudgery and depressive aspects of confinement are only exacerbated by the denial of free exercise of religion.  Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie, one of the defendants in the prisoner suit, promised to return his state’s prisoners back to the islands yet recently signed a $136.5 million with private prison operator CCA. CCA runs the Saguro facility that is also a defendant in the newly-certified class action. See: Davis, et al. v Abercrombie, et al., 11-00144, U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii, September 30, 2014.


Additional Source: Associated Press

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Related legal case

Davis, et al. v Abercrombie, et al.