Friday, January 7, 2011

Trouble in Paradise: The Hawaiian Correctional Crisis

This semester I'm on research leave at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. And, as I have started to learn, Hawaii has its own correctional issues and concerns, which are different from California's, but similar in some important ways.

The Community Alliance on Prisons highlights some important problems with the Hawaiian correctional system. In 2009, when we held our CCC conference, the CAP held its own conference about the local crisis (the proceedings, in full, are here.) The conference debunked the myth that "there are no bad prisons in paradise", highlighting the oppressive war on drugs, and the disproportionate number of Hawaiian natives behind bars. As late as the mid-1980s, conditions in Hawaiian prisons were outrageous, and included inmates sleeping on floors and cruel corporal punishment. These methods were, apparently, justified by treating inmates the way they supposedly were treated in their native cultures.

Hawaii's incarceration rate is half that of the United States in average, but it is still alarmingly high. Shockingly, Hawaii is the country’s third largest consumer of private prison services with 34% of Hawaii state inmates in private prisons.

As reported by Meda Chesney-Lind, whose research focuses on gender issues in the criminal justice system, the rates of female incarceration in Hawaii (mostly for low-level drug offenses) are on the rise. Hawaiian prison population in general appears to be comprised mostly of drug offenders, and as explained by Marilyn Brown, the incarceration policy has not been very useful in addressing the problem. And, according to Tom Lengyel, who has studied the impact of drug-related incarceration on families in Hawaii, more benefits with less social costs can be attained through residential programs.

This evening I happened to catch Kat Brady from CAP on the local TV channel, speaking of the sporadic and unsystematic reentry initiatives in Hawaii. She mentioned several policies that made life difficult for inmates, and particularly for female inmates. Women in drug programs, for example, who form friendships within the program, are then prohibited from keeping in touch with their friends after being paroled.

I look forward to learning more about the Hawaiian correctional system, as well as keeping a watchful eye on things back in California.

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