A group of prominent women is pushing for a complete overhaul of Hawaii’s women’s prison system through a slew of bills under consideration by the Legislature.

The Women’s Prison Project, a 31-member coalition made up of former politicians, business leaders and prison reform advocates, helped introduce 12 bills in the Legislature that would dramatically transform the way women are funneled through the state’s criminal justice system.

The bills aim to reduce the state’s female prison population, improve conditions for incarcerated women, expand community services for women released from prison and provide more comprehensive oversight for inmates housed at the Women’s Community Correctional Center on Oahu.

Linda Lingle speaks to the Honolulu Civil Beat editorial board during a meeting held at our office.
Former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle speaks to the Honolulu Civil Beat Editorial Board about bills proposed by the Women’s Prison Project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

As of Wednesday, 11 of the bills are still alive in the Legislature in some form. A 12th bill, dedicated to reducing the number of women who return to prison upon their release by providing housing vouchers, child care vouchers and tax credits to employers hiring formerly incarcerated women, has been repackaged in a new bill with different language.

“Our goal is to reduce the incarcerated women population of Hawaii by 50% in the next five years and 75% by 2030,” former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a member of the Women’s Prison Project, told Civil Beat. “We think this is doable. It’s realistic as long as the kinds of changes we’re recommending take place and there is a complete paradigm shift in how we treat women who become involved in the criminal justice system.”

Many of the reforms the project is proposing closely mirror recommendations made in a 2019 report to the Legislature, which urged lawmakers to recognize the differing needs between male and female offenders.

The report, produced by a task force formed by the Legislature in 2016 to study the state’s incarceration policies, found that over 75% of the state’s incarcerated women are mothers and many have substance abuse problems. It also determined that Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders make up a disproportionate amount of Hawaii’s female inmate population.

The Women’s Prison Project hopes to address the gender-specific issues outlined in the 2019 report with a bill that would create a Women’s Corrections Implementation Commission to provide oversight over women’s prisons, handle complaints from incarcerated women and implement reforms to the criminal justice system.

The bill has received unanimous support from two state Senate committees and will go before the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday.

Womens Community Correctional Center WCCC Hawaii prison razor wire.
The Women’s Prison Project is calling for sweeping reforms in Hawaii’s correctional system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

“There is just so much evidence that women’s needs, strengths and pathways to crime are different from those of men and require different interventions and services,” said Linda Rich, a member of the Women’s Prison Project and former director of Treatment and Clinical Services at the Salvation Army. “There’s a long list of trauma, sexual exploitation, abusive childhood, lack of housing and women’s health issues. There’s so many things that need to be addressed.”

Another bill the Women’s Prison Project helped introduce would require the Hawaii Department of Public Safety to develop a gender-based risk assessment tool for women awaiting trial to determine how likely they are to appear in court, reoffend and whether they pose a danger to the community.

“It has been proven in other states that these low-risk women can be effectively rehabilitated in community programs, many of which allow them to have their children with them,” Rich said. “There’s not a need to incarcerate as many as end up in our prison system.

The bill that would create the risk assessment tool has also received unanimous support from two state Senate committees and passed its first reading before the full Senate on Wednesday.

A third piece of legislation the group helped introduce would fund residential programs in which female offenders could participate instead of going to jail.

The bill would allocate $200,000 in state funding for programs that include community-based furlough programs, residential drug treatment programs, mental health programs, and therapeutic community programs.

“We also want to reduce harmful effects to the children of these women,” Rich said. “We know that they are vulnerable to developmental problems, behavioral problems, lining up to be the next that’s incarcerated. So we want to stop that trauma also.”

The bill has garnered unanimous support from two Senate committees.

On top of bills the project helped introduce to increase prison oversight and prevent family separation, the group has also helped bring measures that would require pat downs of female inmates be conducted only by female corrections employees, provide funding for Native Hawaiian-specific rehabilitation programs and improve education programs in Women’s Community Correctional Center.

“The bottom line is that the problems and issues surrounding the over-incarceration of women in Hawaii are well-known, the solutions are well-researched and proven to work, and the resources are available,” said Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey,  a member of the Women’s Prison Project and chair of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees. “The time for action is now.”

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