Hawaii Inmate Revives Quest to Practice Religion

     HONOLULU (CN) — A Hawaii prison inmate says his jailers violated a decade-old agreement to let inmates practice their Native Hawaiian religious beliefs.
     Robert Holbron, an inmate of the Halawa Correctional Facility in Honolulu, filed a class action against the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, its director Nolan Espinda and Halawa warden Francis Sequeira on April 14 in state court, claiming the department “bar[s] Native Hawaiian practitioners from meeting with each other on a daily basis for group worship.”
     Holbron says that the defendants violate inmates’ constitutional rights and a 2005 settlement in which the prison system agreed to recognize the Native Hawaiian religion in exchange for dismissal of a civil rights action — to which Holbron was also party.
     In response to the settlement, the department issued “PSD Makahiki Guidelines” to help wardens accommodate inmate requests.
     Makahiki marks the Hawaiian winter, when the ancients turned their attention from matters associated with Ku, god of war, to harvest activities and games associated with Lono, god of rain and fecundity.
     Integral to the celebration are a sacred outdoor space and a number of implements including native garments, “apu” coconut shell bowl, “ipu” gourd drum, conch shell, yellow ginger, sea salt, ti leaves and lauhala mats used in dancing, chanting and feasting.
     Although the guidelines were approved by the former deputy director for corrections and the director of public safety, Holbron says the state of Hawaii lacks any method for reviewing requests. At issue are written communications made by Holbron to Halawa staff, attempts at informal resolution through the prison chaplain and ultimately a formal grievance process — none of which has availed Holbron of his desire to celebrate Makahiki, his complaint says.
     In fact, Holbron says prison officials acknowledged receipt of Holbron’s requests and his grievances — even assigning the later control numbers — but never answered them beyond that.
     Holbron’s complaint also notes Native Hawaiians’ disproportionate representation in the Aloha State’s prison system. According to a 2010 study done by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Native Hawaiians make up 39 percent of the prison population but just 24 percent of the general population.
     And yet the Native Hawaiians are not afforded the right to practice their beliefs like other inmates are, Holbron says.
     He is suing for violating the Hawaii Constitution relating to the free exercise of religion and equal protection. He seeks class certification, a declaration that the prison system violates his constitutional rights and an order allowing him and other Native Hawaiian inmates to practice their religion by using traditional objects and in a sacred space.
     Holbron also asks the court to appoint a special master to monitor the prison system’s compliance with the orders.
     He is represented by Sharla Manley of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. in Honolulu.