Corruption occurs regularly under mass incarceration, a system where it is absolutely normal for a man like Gerard Puana to be convicted and incarcerated with shoddy evidence, in which poverty is criminalized through dozens of unequally applied county and state laws, and where corporate prisons expand profits and build immigrant detention centers while successful community-based safety and education programs are chronically underfunded.

Transformative bills were passed by the 2019 Legislature regarding criminal justice, which represent a small step toward repairing a deeply flawed and inequitable system. They include independent oversight of the police, the Department of Public Safety, and major changes to our bail procedures.

These actions must be commended, as they are the result of decades of study and advocacy. They are long overdue as a result of human rights violations in our prisons and jails. Advocates have to thank the Kealoha corruption trial more than the Legislature.

Change is coming in part because of the timing of a massive corruption debacle in Honolulu that has shed light on decades of terrible behavior by powerful people in the sprawling criminal justice system. That sort of corruption does not occur in a vacuum.

Halawa Prison from Red Hill.
Halawa Correctional Facility. The author seeks major criminal justice reform. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The long overdue attention to systemic racism inherent in American mass incarceration has begun to change our attitudes about public safety. It is now common knowledge that mass incarceration has roots in the disenfranchisement of African Americans, native peoples, and those deemed illegal immigrants. This understanding is the result of difficult, diligent work by academics, cultural practitioners, and artists.

The parallel interrogation of mass incarceration in the Pacific is currently underway. It is politically inconvenient in this state to raise the issue of corporate prisons, despite the culture shifting significantly in recent years.

Now is the time to articulate a better system before the next state budget crisis empties funds directed to the Department of Public Safety, before the next corruption scandal erupts, and before legal settlements based in human rights violations are enforced. We must demand that every dollar saved on criminal justice should be spent on repairing bad law from the last several decades. We must do everything we can to reduce the inmate population while promoting public safety.

The Problem Of Private Prisons

A history lesson: The state of Hawaii has housed inmates in corporate prisons since 1994, when it entered into a contract with Corrections Corporation of America, which later rebranded itself as Core Civic. The CCA was allowed to choose whom it housed from among the state’s male and female inmate populations, shuttling them across facilities in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana and New Jersey.

In 2008, the women who were sent to private prisons were brought home after lawsuits regarding sexual assault by guards. Most of the male paahao (prisoners) were eventually consolidated in Saguaro. Most of the paahao in Arizona were convicted of class-C felonies, usually non-violent drug-related offenses. Core Civic also operates numerous immigrant detention centers and has seen its stock ascend since the beginning of the Trump administration.

It is politically inconvenient in this state to raise the issue of corporate prisons.

From the perspective of a private prison corporation that could sell the state a contract to house its prisoners without actually fixing its issues, Hawaii remains the perfect customer. Because facilities have deteriorated in Hawaii since 1994, the contract has expanded under every state governor since its inception.

Several state audits and task force reports have slammed the private prison arrangement. Death, sex assault, riots and criminal behavior by guards have become common in local news. Using the state’s data, we know that approximately half the inmates at Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi are incarcerated because they cannot afford bail — not because they are dangerous or a flight risk — simply because they are poor.

Private prisons depend on a system that is overcrowded, inefficient, and lacking oversight. Despite decades of data, in 2014, the Legislature allowed for a new facility to be built on Oahu for the amount of $498 million on a loan.

The plan expands mass incarceration while the rest of the free world is reducing it, and betrays the intersecting local values of community development and environmental protection.

We must change the law. Lessons from around the world are unanimous: mass incarceration does not work to make communities safe. What does work are collaborative, community-based restorative justice programs; youth programs; evidence-based models for rehabilitation; addiction treatment; job training; the zealous preservation of due process; and traditional cultural practices that perpetuate a sense of belonging and pride.

In communities where basic human needs are met, crime is rare. For the small percentage of people who are a legitimate danger to society, Hawaii should maintain small, well-managed prisons.

Now is the time to end mass incarceration in Hawaii. The recent bills by the Legislature are a first step. When enacted, the state will save millions and crime will decrease, as has been accomplished in other states. Those savings should go back to educating keiki, victim funds, alternatives to incarceration, the preservation of our islands, and the advancement of local values in the 21st century.

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