Native Hawaiian prisoners held on the mainland in a private prison received a partial legal victory this week, as a federal judge granted them class action status to pursue their claims against the prison and the State of Hawaii.
The prisoners are practitioners of Native Hawaiian religion, who claim their religious freedoms have been denied while serving time in the Arizona prison that works in conjunction with the Hawaii Department of Public Safety to house prisoners due to a lack of jail space on the island. There are approximately 180 registered practitioners of kanaka maoli in the prison, all of whom are now potential plaintiffs in the class action suit.
The religious freedom brings up thorny Constitutional law questions, and where the balance lies between keeping order and safety in a prison housing criminals, while still providing for the First Amendment right to freely practice religion. Prisoners have demanded the right to wear certain amulets which have been denied, while stating Christian prisoners are allowed to wear crosses. Native Hawaiian religious practices also involve communal outdoor ceremonies during the harvest season from October to February, which runs into the obvious obstacle that prison confinement rejects as being counter to both safety considerations, and the main premise of incarceration.
It remains to be seen how many of the prisoners join the class action, which requires that members be “similarly situated” in their claims. A loss or jury verdict against the prison would not only be costly to the State of Hawaii, but could also further the call for Hawaiian citizens who are incarcerated to be brought back to the islands to serve out their sentences in an area more culturally sensitive to their unique religious needs.