The federal court has approved a final settlement in a landmark lawsuit over the religious rights of Native Hawaiian prisoners at the Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison where about 1,700 Hawaii prisoners are housed.

The settlement, approved Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi, ends a legal odyssey that has lasted for nearly six years.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in March 2011 by eight Native Hawaiian prisoners at Saguaro, a for-profit prison owned and operated by CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.

The prisoners alleged that CoreCivic officials violated their constitutional rights by denying them free exercise of their Native Hawaiian religious practices — such as gathering for daily outdoor worship.

Saguaro Correctional Center CCA Fence CCA mountains Eloy Arizona1
A group of Native Hawaiian prisoners at the Saguaro Correctional Center filed a class-action lawsuit in 2011, alleging a violation of their religious rights. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In September 2014, after many rounds of legal wrangling, Kobayashi granted class certification to the plaintiffs, allowing nearly 200 Native Hawaiian prisoners to join in the case.

Eight months later, the lawsuit appeared close to a resolution when the two sides agreed on the basic terms of a settlement, but the negotiation for the details of the agreement kept dragging on.

Eventually, in February 2016, CoreCivic asked the court to force the settlement, arguing that the terms that had been agreed to in May 2015 were “fair, reasonable and adequate” to address all of the plaintiffs’ claims.

“The settlement moves the ball forward from where we were. … In that regard, this is a big progress.” — Sharla Manley, the plaintiffs’ attorney

The plaintiffs objected — but to no avail: Kobayashi ultimately sided with CoreCivic, approving the basic terms from 2015.

The plaintiffs’ attorney Sharla Manley said the sticking point in the negotiation was how the settlement was going to be enforced. But she declined to provide any details, saying the settlement negotiations are supposed to be private.

Under the settlement, Saguaro prisoners will be allowed to participate in outdoor worship classes and observations of Makahiki — a four-month period dedicated to the Hawaiian god Lono — as well as have access to a spiritual advisor and religious items and clothing, among other things.

Despite the plaintiffs’ objections, Manley, staff attorney at the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, said what’s included in the settlement is “historic and sweeping.”

“We started with the (Hawaii Department of Public Safety) and CCA saying that these practices don’t even exist,” Manley said. “So, at least, the settlement moves the ball forward from where we were. It’s a beginning of the framework for accommodating the practices. In that regard, this is a big progress.”

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