The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Criminal Justice Reform Advocate Kat Brady - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at

Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters spoke with Kat Brady of the nonprofit advocacy group Community Alliance on Prisons. Brady began this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, with an explanation about the origins of the alliance.

We actually started in the 1990s when mandatory minimums and enhance sentencing were just going off the rails. We held a conference that had like 250 people. It was the first big prison conference and we had judges and people from all over. And since then, we’ve just been continuing going on and on looking at different issues each session.

So bail is really big this session and really trying to create a kinder and gentler community to realize that everybody who is incarcerated is not Charles Manson. Most of our people, like in the Oahu Community Correctional Center, (are) now 55% in pretrial, 60% in Hawaii Community Correctional Center. It’s like $219 a day (to incarcerate an inmate). What are we doing?! So it’s those kinds of things that keep me engaged and keep me trying to bring forward the voices of the people whose voices have been silenced by incarceration.

Since the time that the alliance came together, are we kinder, gentler?

No. Actually, we went through sort of a kinder, gentler thing, and now we’re back to really kind of punitive — you know, lock people up who are nuisances. And that’s a real problem. We have a huge mental health problem. About 17% of those who are incarcerated are seriously and persistently mentally ill. There’s a huge population of people with major behavioral and mental health problems.

You mentioned there have been peaks and valleys. What did go right over the last 20 years or so?

Well, I think people started to realize reentry was important. And that’s been a huge thing for me.

That is, reentry into the community.

Yes. And that’s the biggest bill I ever wrote that passed in 2007. And it was after we went through the sausage machine. It was five bills that were sort of smushed into SB 932, which became Act 7 in 2007. And that was the reentry law. It was really comprehensive to look at who’s in prison. What do you need when you come out? Well, you need to actually have relationships with people on the outside who are positive. Your family, your kids, your friends, and what could we do about it?

I first started about human rights, and that took me about six months to realize that ain’t working. So then I started monetizing everything — you know, this is what we’re doing, this is what it cost per day. And what are we doing with people who are mentally ill? Do we actually think that prison or jail is going to help them? They can’t follow directions, and then they get write-ups, and they’re just the ones that go to the hole.

When you were talking about the peaks and valleys of the reception of the Legislature, we did go through a period when they were doing a pretrial bail task force and the (prison) oversight commission. And we did have a phase when they appeared to be trying to address some of the issues that concern you.

Yes. And then, well, they’ve never funded the oversight commission, right? This year, perhaps it will be funded. The governor has never appointed a coordinator.

What do you make of that particular fact — that they don’t support it?

They don’t want oversight. They want a new humongous jail. And I am a big pain in the ass because I’m saying “no” and I’m trying to get (at) the budget thing. (House Finance Chair) Sylvia (Luke) took $15 million out of the budget that was supposed to go for more planning, and the planning has been done in the dark.

For the new OCCC in Halawa?

Yes. And they’ve never really engaged the community. And I’m like, look at who’s in there? And all the community has been asking is, let us be part of the process. We want to know who’s in there for how long, what are better alternatives. They don’t want to hear that, they want to build the jail.

Kat Brady spoke with the Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters on Wednesday.
Kat Brady spoke with the Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters on Wednesday. Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2022

The jail price tag was well over half a billion dollars.

Oh, it’s going to be like a billion.

The top end of the estimate are like seven, eight years old. I think it’s $525 (million).

It was huge for a 1,350-bed facility. They want to have one part of it be a reentry facility. And I said, OK, so you’re an employer and you get an application from somebody, and what’s that address? Oh, that address is Halawa prison. Next! That’s what happens. You don’t reenter from prison, you reenter from the community. You need to have that step-down, some kind of program that helps you figure out how to navigate your way because in prison everything is prescribed for you — what time you get up, when you eat, what you wear.

When you’re in the community, you have a lot of decisions to make before you get out of bed. And these people are not used to that kind of stuff. So you need to help people figure out how to navigate their way into the community safely. And that’s been a big thing for me, and really we have ignored reentry because I believe they want to build more. They want to build new stuff all over Hawaii for prisons and jails.

You mentioned you are the author of the reentry law. What do you envision that is needed? Is it as simple as a separate physical structure?

Community programs that are run by community agencies. Because in prison there’s just so many obstacles, and many of the obstacles are the adult correctional officers, who are like, “You’re stupid, why are you doing that?” I just got a letter this morning from Saguaro (where more than 1,000 of Hawaii inmates are housed in Arizona) that freaked me out. They call the Micronesians bitches, stupid, just because they can’t read, because all the information is on the screen, but they can’t read. So when our guys try to help them, they both go to the hole (solitary).

What are the total numbers of inmates today in Hawaii, and how many are in Arizona?

There’s 3,997 people as of March 14 that are incarcerated by the state, and 1,110 of them are in Saguaro.

Whatever happened to that plan to bring them back from Arizona? Gov. Neil Abercrombie famously said he was going to do it.

Actually, he did say that. And then he actually said, by 2018, everybody will be back. And I was like, there’s no way that’s going to happen because everything is overcrowded. So what are you going to do? And the problem with the Legislature is that when overcrowding happens, their response is “more beds,” our response is “more justice.” Who actually needs to be there?

And I’ve talked to ACOs and wardens who’ve told me most of these people shouldn’t be there, like in the women’s prison. We don’t need to have 200 more people there. Most of these women would be better served in community programs where they could be with their families rather than be locked up in a cage.

And when you’re adding beds, you’re putting them in the same cells and you’re overcrowding the cells.

Yes. And like Maui Community Correctional Center, three to a cell. OCCC, I think the capacity population — I always liked the design population, which is 628 — the capacity is 954, and I think there’s like 942 there now.

Women’s (Community Correctional Center) is actually adding 150 beds right now?

Yes, because they’re bringing the women from OCCC over. And that’s a whole other thing because what they’re building there is just really frustrating. Why are they building old-style prisons when all across the world people are realizing that most of the people who end up in jail need some kind of services. And maybe it’s better to actually have what is — I think this is in Atlanta — called equity centers. So it’s more like a day-reporting kind of thing where people can check in and have access to services that they and their families need. To me, that would be much more productive for Hawaii to do.

Oahu Community Correctional Center OCCC seen thru a fence located across Kamehameha Highway.
The Ige administration wants to build a new Oahu Community Correctional Center in Halawa Valley, something opposed by prison-reform advocates like Brady. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

You know the political landscape really well. Why is there the knee-jerk reaction you’re suggesting, the reaction to be punitive and lock them up? And when we are overcrowded, we get more beds and we don’t go to the community programs. I’ve got to assume that they’re responding to some sort of political pressure. Can you speak to that?

Well, I think it’s basically news reports — “Oh, things are happening in Chinatown. We got to get weed and seed, we got to get rid of these people.” And I think the Legislature is susceptible to that.

Is this a “tough on crime” kind of thing?

Yes. And they actually think by locking people up, it’ll solve the crime problem. And I’m like, do you understand when people are in prison, they have absolutely no programs? So it’s all dead time. What do you think they talk about?

When you said earlier that they want to build all these facilities all over — do you think that’s some kind of a spending plan to get people work or whatever? Do you think it’s all about punishment and not about just bringing home projects to different districts?

I think it’s about punishment. (For) the union (United Public Workers), it’s always about jobs, which is why they support it. They support the building.

What’s your priority at the the Legislature this session?

Well, I think the bail (reform) bill is really important. And I think what’s really important is that the (Department of Public Safety) commissioned a report from Pulitzer, a consulting firm, and they did a report and their report basically said, you know, if bail (reform) passes, you can save 200 beds. They said that. (But) the A.G., the prosecutors have all come in (saying), “Oh my God, you’re going to release all these dangerous people.” First of all, do you have any trust in the judiciary? If somebody has done something violent and harmed people, I don’t think they’re going to let that person out.

So to me, it’s the prosecutors who are the gatekeepers of the system who are really trying to subsume the work of the Judiciary and the Legislature to come in and just say, this is what we need to do. And I think that’s really dangerous.

House floor session.
Brady argues that many in the Hawaii Legislature have no understanding of the situation in the state’s jails and prisons, which stymies meaningful  reform. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

And also in the last several years, the Legislature has really closed to the community. So there is no debate, because generally the way conference (committee) works was, (the public) can’t talk, but you can be in the room and listen to the deliberations. And generally the legislators would call on certain people who worked on certain issues to just elucidate a little bit more for everybody’s understanding now.

Very few people in the Hawaii State Capitol actually understand what happens in prison.

Now, like when they passed the oversight bill, they gaveled in the committee, they gaveled it out. I went away, they came back in like three days and they took a vote. And not everybody on the committee had even seen the bill. And that’s why I’ve been trying since 2019 to fix the mistake in there because they put in that people should be released at their maximum (term). I’m like, duh, you wouldn’t need a bill for that. It’s supposed (to be) for minimum term, not maximum. Both bills are moving — HB 1739 and SB 2305. They’re companion bills.

They’re not mandatory. It’s a recommendation?

Yes. Well, it’s like what the oversight commission should be doing. I think the oversight bill will (advance) because some of the more punitive legislators don’t really understand the prisons. Very few people in that building actually understand what happens in prison.

Senate Bill 2777 on searches of incarcerated women — the pat downs. It looks like that is moving so far, and that is something that is long overdue. Tell us a little bit about that.

Well, the (Department of Public Safety) is totally against it. The problem is that women don’t report (incidents), and they keep trying to say, “But we have posters all over and there’s a number they can call and it’s confidential.” Do you think women in prison or anybody in prison believes any of those phones are confidential? I don’t think so. Just the stories I’ve heard — women being ogled while they were in the shower, that kind of stuff.

What other bills should we pay attention to?

House Bill 2169 (to help transition inmates with civil identification cards). The law basically says that the department should assist inmates. And this bill actually has one killer line, a poison pill that I missed on the first go round. It basically said the inmate has to ask — ask for help for documents.

We have eight different languages spoken in our prisons. I don’t think people actually know what to ask for, and somebody who’s been in 20 years, they don’t really know what they need to navigate their way into the community. So the department is hiding behind that, basically saying, “Oh, we don’t have to do it,” and it’s like, no, nobody should be released without I.D. That’s your kuleana.

The Senate public safety committee, we had a big discussion last Thursday about this, and I was at the Legislature and they basically were asking, “Well, that’s ridiculous. How would people know what to ask for?” I said, exactly. We have eight different languages spoken in our facilities. This is what the caseworkers should be doing, you know when people are going to be released, so make sure that they have everything together. So the bill says, within 90 days that I.D. from the Department of Transportation should be in their file so that when they leave, they get it or go on work furlough.

This I.D. can improve the process that helps them reenter society?

Yes. And that has been a really big barrier. So now there’s another bill that’s going to be (heard) by Sen. Karl Rhoads. It’s House Bill 1761. That bill was actually put forth by the Filipino Caucus, and it’s for immigrants to get limited purpose I.D. like we did for driver’s licenses. So we pushed to get a clause in there to include people who were being released without I.D.s, and we got a clause put in there.

I did want to talk about a bill that I’m really hoping passes, and that’s House Bill 1741. It’s about a family visitation and resource center at Waiawa Correctional Facility. This is something that we’ve been working on for a long time, it was convened by Department of Human Services and Blueprint for Change, and it’s really trying to look at the inter-generational incarceration that the Department of Justice said they had never seen this kind of inter-generational incarceration anywhere else.

Remnants of the quarry in Halawa frame what is called 'Main Street' as inmates traverse from modules to modules. file photograph from 2015 December.
The Halawa Correctional Facility is currently plagued with the use of “spice,” a type of synthetic contraband. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

They said that in 1998. They went to eight jurisdictions and they were so stunned in Hawaii. I know I was stunned the first time I ever went into a women’s prison because I saw all these people who were related. “Oh, there’s my cousin. Well, there’s my grandmother.” I was like, grandma, what are grandmas doing here?

I don’t think we’re very careful about who we incarcerate, and we don’t use incarceration as a last resort. “You’re making problems for the community and we’re just going to isolate you.” And to me, that’s not been helpful, especially when people have drug problems, because you can get drugs in prison and then you don’t have to look far.

I don’t think we’re very careful about who we incarcerate, and we don’t use incarceration as a last resort.

I just think we’re not mindful about the impacts of incarceration because they look at us in incarceration — “bad guy, one guy, that’s it” — like that person doesn’t come from a community or family. And incarceration affects everybody.

Most of the women are mothers. And what are we doing? Why do we think incarceration is going to help? This is like a 100-year experiment that’s been a failure. Basically, we’re sending people to criminal college where they learn bigger and better crimes. And that is not what we want. We want to model behavior that we want to see in the community.

Come Monday, in-person visitation starts again. Given the experience with Covid in our jails and prisons, any concerns about that?

Well, the state is always concerned about liability. I think the whole messaging thing on Covid has just been a disaster. In 2020 the AG, Claire Connors, went before the Supreme Court in one of the release petitions that the Office of Public Defender filed. And she basically said, “Oh my God, we were caught off guard.”

I’m like, caught off guard? Lady, get on guard, because if you read the news, it’s busting out all over the continent. It started in a prison and then it blew up in different communities. And then she said, “Well, the department has a pandemic response plan, but you know, they just can’t really follow it.”

Temperature checks will be required and masks must be worn at all times. Things will be sanitized.

Yes, and it looks real good on paper. But in the early stages of the pandemic the guys were just hearing the television news and they were freaking out, so they were making masks out of T-shirts or ripping their bedsheets. They were getting write-ups because the guards refused to wear masks, and some of the guards even told them, “Oh no, we’re going for herd immunity.” I mean, it’s really scary. So the messaging has been they keep waving the plan, but they’re not doing it. And that was what the Eric Seitz case was all about, that they’re not doing it.

How’s the vaccines and boosters going?

The vaccines and boosters are going well, I think. I think Max Otani (of DPS) reported it was like 88% in Halawa (Correctional Facility).

That’s higher than the rest of the state.

Yes. So they’ve been doing well. I think there’s been a lot of sickouts with older guards who don’t want to get vaccinated, so they don’t show up for work. They’ve been putting a lot of young recruits and some of these guys are working like 16, 20 hours a day. And I’m like, you don’t want to. I keep saying to the guys, you don’t want to mess around with people who’ve been working that many hours because they have no patience and they’re burnt. So they have a real staffing problem.

And I understand why. The training needs to happen. We need real training, not takedowns. And the bulk of the training is cell extraction takedowns. I get a lot of calls from ACOs and I keep saying, why are you calling me? You know, I work for people who have no one and they have told me that, in the old days, there’d be a disturbance and there’d be like an older Hawaiian guard who would say, “Wait a minute, don’t lock anything down, let me go in and talk to them.” And he would, he’d go in and talk them down. Where now, when people really don’t have training, you just lock down the facility and that creates a whole other problem.

Basically, we’re sending people to criminal college where they learn bigger and better crimes.

Well, right now Halawa’s swimming in spice, and that’s a huge problem. I just put in a call to (the UH medical school) to say, do you have anybody who is well-versed in ice and the impacts and what to do and all that, because they’re relying on the law enforcement division and I’m like, you don’t want to go to law enforcement for a medical problem, let’s figure out what this is and what the effects are.

Any other bills?

One bill that I’m really brokenhearted about — I have been working for decades to get a bill on solitary confinement because the letters I’m getting from Saguaro are just awful. The letters are saying that they have this thing called property restriction. They just take all your property and maybe you go to the hole — solitary. The department doesn’t use “solitary” anymore because actually there’s two people in a cell, so it’s not really solitary. I’m like, you’re isolated and you’re on lockdown most of the time.

The studies on solitary say that it is really brutalizing.

Oh my God, yes, and how people come out. And I know people who’ve been in solitary who came out and committed suicide because they just couldn’t make it — like if you’ve been in solitary a long time, you lose your ability to communicate with people and they come out and they’re kind of freaked out. They don’t know how to talk to each other. I mean, you should put somebody like, you know, the guy from “Silence of the Lambs,” somebody like that who’s really vicious, who just beats up people. But a lot of these guys — minor infractions. They’re talking back to the guard.

But they’re no Hannibal the Cannibal.

No. We don’t have many people like that. (But) it’s very hard to get the Legislature to not see people in prison as just all really bad and hopeless.

So you’ve been doing this a long time. Why do you keep doing it and how long are you going to keep doing it?

Well, you know, every time I feel like, damn, do I think I’m Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain — and then the phone rings, and it’s somebody from inside or a mom and I think I do something that no one else does. They need somebody, they need somebody out here and the families, they need somebody to help them navigate the system.

Sometimes I can really help somebody. Somebody called me and, “Oh my God, they’re going to take my son and send him to Arizona.” And why are they doing that? So I look up the (record), his history and all that, and I call Max (Otani) and I go, how do you choose who goes? And he said, “Well, the facilities do that,” and I say, you know, there’s a guy on the list and it’s a kid in for a probation violation, and come on, what are we doing? And the kid came off the list.

He’s at OCCC?

The kid’s paroled now.

So I am curious how much longer you’ll keep doing this.

Oh, I’m not going to stop. I keep trying to interest younger people. I don’t make any money doing this, so I don’t get paid to do any of this work. And our board is really supportive of me doing this because I told them this is where the money’s going. It’s the big sink. So they’re very supportive.

I’m motivated by love and I love our community. And what we’re doing is we’re ripping apart families. We’re targeting communities with the poorest people, the people who just don’t have services they need in their community.

And we’re using prison to, what, help people get drug treatment? No, it’s how you help people get drugs. That’s what’s really scary. So I’m going to do this till I die because I’m testifying in front of people who I testified in front of their dads. And I know I’m going to be testifying in front of some of their kids because it’s the same problem with plenty of solutions, but no will to actually do it.

I’m motivated by love and I love our community. And what we’re doing is we’re ripping apart families.

And that is the biggest problem with the Legislature: There isn’t a will. They’re so worried about liability. “Oh my God, we’re going to let somebody out. What if that guy kills somebody?” I say, look at the profile. We don’t have that many people who actually need to be separated from the community — not tortured, but separated and given the services they need. But we just keep incarcerating people, and it’s the “more bed” thing. “Oh, we need more beds.” No, we need more programs because we have people who are really suffering and their families are suffering.

And that’s where the inter-generational incarceration comes in, because I was talking with a guy who was in like 20 something years. He came to the Legislature. And he said to me, I knew I was going to be in prison when I was 4 years old. I said, how did you know that? And he said, “Because every man in my family has been in prison.” That to me, that is a clarion call to wake up. If a kid believes that his fate is to be locked up, something is deeply wrong and we need to (fix) that.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at

Latest Comments (0)

Justice system, prison system the Hawaii system is messed up. My loved one was given 4 months mandatory time by a judge after my husband did 2 yrs. In Sand island treatment center best program ever. We thanked the judge for that opportunity. he was then sent to Halawa where we thought he would be coming home in 4 months but all that came crashing down when the parole board gave him 7 years for possession of drugs. They told him you think after 2 years in sand island you a changed man. My husband lost his job as a plumber that Sand island helped him get my children lost there connection with there father after they mended what they lost in the past. We lost our financial stability. He’s now sitting in Saguaro prison and we haven’t heard from him in over a week. They really make it hard for loved ones to stay in contact. Phone calls are lifelines to help him stay sane. He’s a nonviolent person just a man that had a really bad drug addiction problem. People change!! Its the system that needs change.

Labrashantini · 1 year ago

Our criminal justice system is broken and Miss Brady knows it. She knows what's on the front lines, and she knows that there are many entities who want it to remain that way, even though Society suffers. Where are the programs to help the people who are addicted to drugs? They're not in the prisons are they?

Scotty_Poppins · 1 year ago

My hat goes off to Kat Brady and CB for the informational interview, the points that was addressed is spot on, But for the position on building the New OCCC in Halewa , putting a price tag on a Billion dollars to build I can only see the nightmare of the RAIL happening all over again, If anything has been learned from that "train wreck" referred to as the Rail, it has to be Never allow take the word of a Politician who says " I have a friend , who knows a guy that has experience in doing the type of work to build a proper Prison," Don't buy into it.

unclebob61 · 1 year ago

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