A prisoner at the Halawa Correctional Facility filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that the Hawaii Department of Public Safety has a “statewide policy and/or custom” that prevents Native Hawaiian prisoners from practicing their religion.

Robert Holbron, housed at Halawa since May, alleges that the department’s practice amounts to an infringement of his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the Hawaii State Constitution.

The lawsuit comes less than three months after another Native Hawaiian inmate at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center filed a similar lawsuit alleging violation of his religious rights.

Holbron is seeking a class-action status for at least 40 Halawa prisoners who have enrolled in — or on the waiting list for — a Hawaiian Studies group at the prison since 2012.

Halawa prison inmates walk between modules on tour. 17 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The lawsuit claims at least 40 Native Hawaiians are prevented from practicing their religion at the Halawa Correctional Facility. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In 2005, Holbron was one of the plaintiffs in Bush vs. State of Hawaii, a federal case over the rights of Native Hawaiian religious practitioners at the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Oklahoma, where he and other Hawaii prisoners were incarcerated at the time.

The case led to a 2008 settlement in which the state and Corrections Corporation of America, which operates Diamondback, recognized the Native Hawaiian religion as being protected under both the U.S. and Hawaiian constitutions and agreed to establish the “PSD Basic Makahiki Guidelines” for accommodating the plaintiffs’ religious rights.

The guidelines require a number of accommodations that Holbron is now seeking at Halawa.

Holbron alleges that the department is ignoring the guidelines by not allowing him to gather with other Native Hawaiian religious practitioners to “dance, chant and pray” together or to observe the annual season of Makahiki — a four-month period dedicated to the Hawaiian god Lono.

Holbron also alleges that he is denied access to sacred religious items, such as native garments, a tree stump drum and woven floor mats, as well as an outdoor altar for worship activities.

The lawsuit — which lists Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, and Francis Sequeira, Halawa’s warden, as well as 25 unnamed Halawa officials, as defendants — is asking the First Circuit Court in Honolulu to compel the department to come up with a comprehensive plan to ensure the rights of Native Hawaiian inmates.

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“We have not been formally served with a lawsuit,” Schwartz said. “We have been advised to reserve comment until it has been served, and we have had time to look it over with our legal counsel.”

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