Four of the Hawaii’s correctional facilities are operating above capacity. Some inmates are jailed for longer than their sentences. A civil rights group has sued the state over unconstitutional conditions inside prisons, and the state has had to spend millions of dollars because of prison and jail staffing shortages.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green calls Hawaii’s prisons an “ecosystem of crisis,” involving mental health, homelessness and poverty issues. Many of those who are incarcerated in Hawaii’s prisons don’t belong there because they are in need of medical care, victims themselves, or in need of other forms of assistance, he says.

“So when we think about what would be fair or smart or equitable, I think we have to look really at this ecosystem of challenges instead of insisting on people doing time,” he told a recent gathering of people interested in prison reform. The panel was hosted by the Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawaii and the William S. Richardson School of Law.

Reform advocates, including civil rights groups and lawyers, and their guests, most of whom were former inmates, spoke about restorative justice programs, impact of cultural practices and their personal experiences.

From left to right: Monica Espitia of ACLU Hawaii, Ella Mojica of Domestic Violence Action Center, Lorenn Walker of Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justice, Kat Brady of Community Alliance on Prisons, Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna of the Hawaii Supreme Court, Bob Merce of the HCR 85 Task Force, Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Kaleo Patterson of the Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center Yoohyun Jung

They may have been representing different organizations, but all had the same message: the system in Hawaii is severely broken, inefficient and unsafe, and it needs to be fixed now.

Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna said the Hawaii Judiciary has played a role in contributing to the state’s prison crisis. But she also had a suggestion to rectify that issue: people should sue.

“If you don’t sue, we can’t address the issues,” she said.

The court system has been proactive about taking measures to be more rehabilitative, such as creating specialty treatment courts, McKenna said.

“But we have to do more,” she said. “And we as a community have to do more.”

Culture And Native Hawaiian Incarceration

Kaleo Patterson, president of Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center and an Episcopalian priest, pointed out the disproportionate incarceration rate of Native Hawaiians, an issue that’s well known to state and legislative leaders.

Latest figures show that while Native Hawaiians make up about 21% of the general population of the state, they make up 37% of the incarcerated population, according to a 2018 prison reform task force report.

They are “our family, our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews, our fathers and grandfathers of our community,” Patterson said.

The priest, who organizes cultural ceremonies in prisons, emphasized the importance of cultural practices inside prisons in helping Native Hawaiian inmates successfully transition back into society once they finish their sentences.

That concept was also a conclusion of the prison reform task force whose report to the Legislature earlier this year led to the first significant prison reform in years — the establishment of an oversight commission to work on serious and pervasive issues. The need for cultural programs was also pushed by the Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force, a study group that reported to policymakers a few years ago.

2015 Makahiki ceremony at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona.
In the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, Native Hawaiian inmates are allowed to celebrate Makahiki twice a year since 2017. Hawaii Department of Public Safety

But cultural programming is limited in Hawaii, according to the 2018 task force report, which also says it is vital in breaking the cycle of intergenerational cycle of incarceration.

Shifting The Narrative

Bree Forbes takes her three young children — ages 4, 6 and 8 — to see their dad, who is currently housed at the Halawa facility on Oahu, once a month.

But that’s if they’re lucky, she told the gathering last week. It’s very hard to schedule visitations. She said she has called the facility up to 22 times to try to get an appointment.

When they actually get there, the children are greeted with six inches of glass between them and their father, Forbes said. Everyone is trying to yell through the glass to their loved ones, talking over one another with their phone receivers.

“To attempt to make some kind of connection with the person on that side of the glass, especially for a child, is nearly impossible,” she said.

She didn’t commit her husband’s crimes, nor did her children. But she feels they are being punished along with him. Forbes said she’s had to figure out how to do a lot of things on her own, including disciplining three kids by herself and facing financial issues.

“The worst part is seeing their relationships diminish,” she said of her children and her husband.

Kat Brady, coordinator of Community Alliance on Prisons, has been helping her out. Brady said too often people forget the collateral damage of incarceration on the families and loved ones.

Kat Brady says the collateral damage of incarceration is often ignored. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

“We need to be really mindful of the interconnectedness of all things,” she said.

And people are still stigmatized for telling their personal stories related to prison, said Monica Espitia, the prison reform campaign director for ACLU Hawaii.

“We need a narrative shift and how we’re going to do that is by making it safe in society for people to tell their stories,” she said.

And telling stories is how the system can be fixed, said Maya Soetoro-Ng, an associate specialist with the Matsunaga Institute who organized the panel discussion.

“It is only through storytelling I think that we are going to see the mindset change and we’re going to be able to have the kind of transformation,” she said.

A good reason not to give

We know not everyone can afford to pay for news right now, which is why we keep our journalism free for everyone to read, listen, watch and share. 

But that promise wouldn’t be possible without support from loyal readers like you.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.



About the Author