Shane Rodrigues alleges that state officials are preventing him from gaining access to sacred religious items and participating in rituals and ceremonies critical to his observation of the annual season of Makahiki — a four-month period dedicated to the Hawaiian god Lono.
Rodrigues alleges that the officials’ actions violate his rights under the free exercise and equal protection clauses of the First Amendment and the Hawaii State Constitution.
The lawsuit, filed last week in the First Circuit Court in Honolulu, lists HCCC Warden Peter Cabreros and case manager Kenneth Rowe, as well as the Hawaii Department of Public Safety and its director, Nolan Espinda, as defendants.
Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, said none of the defendants were available to comment for this story.
“We have been advised to reserve comment on pending litigation,” Schwartz said.
The allegations made by Rodrigues are similar to those asserted in an ongoing federal class-action lawsuit filed by a group of Native Hawaiian prisoners housed at the Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison run by Corrections Corporation of America.
The Saguaro prisoners filed their lawsuit in 2011 after CCA officials prevented them from gathering for daily outdoor worship and confiscated objects they said were vital to their religion.
In 2014, a federal judge granted class certification to the Saguaro prisoners — in all, nearly 200 prisoners who declared that they engage in Native Hawaiian religious practices there.
Sharla Manley, one of the attorneys involved in the federal case, questioned the state’s commitment to meeting the needs of Native Hawaiians, the largest ethnic group in the prison system.
According to a 2010 study by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Native Hawaiians make up 39 percent of all prisoners, even though they are 24 percent of the overall Hawaii population.
At HCCC, Rodrigues alleges that state officials engage in a “persistent widespread practice” of denying him and other Native Hawaiians the rights to fully practice their religion, while allowing inmates of other faiths to meet with spiritual leaders and observe religious holidays.
According to the lawsuit, Rodrigues is not allowed to gather with other Native Hawaiian religious practitioners to chant, dance or pray as a group, nor does he have access to sacred items — such as native garments, tree stump drum and woven floor mats — necessary for practicing his religion.
The lawsuit is asking the court to mandate the state to create a “comprehensive plan” to allow Native Hawaiian inmates to practice their religion and appoint a “special master” to monitor its compliance.
“This is an area that the Department of Public Safety needs to shore up. I’m surprised that we had to file another lawsuit, especially here in Hawaii,” said Manley, who is also representing Rodrigues. “I think it’s an indicator that this is a systemic problem within the department.”
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