Like the rest of the country, Hawaii has dramatically increased its reliance on incarceration in the last four decades.

Hawaii now imprisons roughly 6,000 of our citizens (5,955 in 2008). That is up from 5,053 in 2000 — an 18 percent increase. Ironically, this increase occurred despite the fact that Hawaii has seen its crime rate decline to the lowest level in decades.

Hawaii’s prison population has also increased at a faster pace than the nation as a whole, increasing since the turn of the century by 2.4 percent a year, compared to a national average of 2.0 percent. California’s prison population, by comparison, increased by only 1 percent per year, and New York’s prison population actually decreased by 1.6 percent per year for the entire period.

Hawaii is unique among the states in its reliance on incarceration in mainland facilities, most frequently in prisons run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America. Fifty-nine percent of Hawaii’s prisoners (on the mainland) are housed in facilities run by CCA, making Hawaii one of its biggest customers.

Those prisoners doing time on the mainland are far away from their families, incarcerated in states like Arizona and, until recently, Kentucky. A review of Hawaii’s classification system reveals that 60 percent of our Hawaii inmates doing time in mainland private, for-profit prisons are actually minimum or community custody, meaning they could be housed in minimum security or community custody beds in Hawaii, instead of thousands of miles away from their homes and families.

Classrooms or cells for Hawaii?

In Hawaii, spending on incarceration has soared in recent years, despite the economic problems that have been haunting the state. Since the turn of the century, the corrections budget has increased by 87.5 percent (from $128 million in 2000 to $225 million in 2009). During the same time, the money spent to send prisoners to private prisons increased by 192 percent, from $20 million to $58.4 million. As it stands now, 26.0 percent of the Department of Public Safety (PSD) general fund operating appropriations goes toward incarcerating prisoners outside of Hawaii; this is up from 15.6 percent in 2000.

Where did the money that fueled Hawaii’s and the nation’s imprisonment boom come from?

Higher education has been a clear loser in the nation’s choice to fund bars not books. A Pew study documented that between 1987 and 2007, corrections budgets rose by 127 percent (meaning they more than doubled), while higher education funding increased by a far more modest amount: only 21 percent.

The State of California provides a fairly clear study of this budget shift over time. In 1980, arguably the year that mass incarceration began, California spent 9.71 percent of its budget on public higher education and 2.83 percent on corrections. Fast forward to 2009, and the figure for higher education is 5.81 percent and for corrections 10.93 percent.

Proportionately, corrections budgets quadrupled in California, recently prompting that state’s Republican governor to call for a shift away from those priorities: “spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future.”

As the California data indicate, there are clear trade-offs here. Colleges and universities, in turn, had to pass the cost of higher education along to taxpayers, in the form of steep tuition increases. Consider that the University of Hawaii at Manoa increased its tuition 20 percent for both in-state and out-of-state students in 2006, achieving the dubious distinction of increasing our tuition more than any other public university in the country that year.

The public does not generally link corrections costs and college tuition, but it should, because every dollar spent on cells takes money from other important government services, including access to an affordable public university education. The nation also loses in this trade-off. At a time when our country clearly needs to invest in education for our citizens to face the challenges of a new century, including rising competition abroad, college educations have become increasingly unaffordable for average families in Hawaii and elsewhere.

The good news is that a number of states, including California, are reconsidering these “choices.” The Sentencing Project noted that in 2009, state legislatures in at least nineteen states enacted policies that have the potential to reduce prison populations and/or promote more effective approaches to public safety.

A number of states like Minnesota and Rhode Island scaled back the scope of mandatory drug sentences; seven states amended probation and parole policies to expand good time and earned time programs resulting in reducing prison sentences; and two states, California and Illinois, created incentive programs for local jurisdictions to reduce probation revocations. Prison admissions in the U.S. have also leveled off, growing at the slowest pace in this century.

Unfortunately, Hawaii’s policy-makers and leaders have not taken such an innovative stance. There is talk, though, of building on the promising results of HOPE Probation, which provides probationers with access to drug treatment and emphasizes swift, short-term jail time instead of costly re-incarceration.

House and Senate Resolutions requesting the Hawaii Paroling Authority to establish HOPE Parole have passed the 2010 Hawaii Legislature. More robust challenges to the current reliance on costly and unproductive incarceration should be tops on any new governor’s agenda. Specifically, a new governor could safely reduce Hawaii’s incarcerated population by implementing the existing tiered furlough system.

Other promising policy changes could include placing individuals with violent histories who have been granted parole on electronic monitoring; returning all community custody individuals who have completed their programming to Hawaii; and mandating that technical parole violators cannot be returned to prison.

With the state budget in a crisis, and with crime rates dropping, a new governor could and should safely implement all these modest changes without any new legislation. The vast sums of money now being paid out to private incarcerators could then be shifted to far more productive and pro-social uses, like restoring funding to public education (both lower and higher) and strengthening the very tattered social service safety net.

DISCUSSION: *This essay is part of a 14-week series of excerpts from the book, “The Value of Hawaii: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future.” What do you think about the authors’ ideas in this essay on prisons in Hawaii? Do you have any questions for them? Join the conversation about criminal justice in Hawaii.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BOOK: The Value of Hawaii: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future

ATTEND A BEATUP WITH THE VALUE OF HAWAII AUTHORS: Meet Kat Brady and Meda Chesney-Lind at our next Beatup. We’ll be talking about public school education, the University of Hawaii and prisons — and how spending on them is related — at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 13 at Civil Beat headquarters, 3465 Waialae Ave., Suite 200. The meeting is free and open to the public. But please RSVP to so we can reserve you a spot. You’ll also be able to buy the book and get the authors to sign it. To learn about our previous Value of Hawaii Beatups, A Second Night on ‘The Value of Hawaii’ and A Night on ‘The Value of Hawaii’ .


Kat Brady is Coordinator of Community Alliance on Prisons, a community initiative promoting smart justice strategies for Hawaii’s lawbreakers for more than a decade.

Meda Chesney-Lind is Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and the author of numerous books on imprisonment in the United States, including Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration (New Press, 2003), and most recently, Beyond Bad Girls: Gender, Violence and Hype (Routledge, 2009), with Katherine Irwin.