A 2011 study found that 54 percent of Hawaii’s prisoners are incarcerated in private prisons on the "mainland" -- the highest percentage among all U.S. states. Photo by Shayan Sanyal

Budget cuts threaten Hawaii’s prisoner rehabilitation strategies

BakTalk
with Beth-Ann Kozlovich


HONOLULU—Sometimes, perhaps on rare occasions, State government and community organizations find themselves on the same page. This legislative session, that appears to be the case with changing attitudes toward Hawaii’s prisoners and where they will be housed. There is an apparent congruence with State and community advocates’ views that center on efficacious reentry programs starting as soon as someone is incarcerated. Organizing the practical application of how that will be done is where the State may soon find itself.

“There’s really a philosophical shift in the department,” says Kat Brady, Coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons. “In 2007, Sen. Will Espero was instrumental in passing Hawaii’s reentry law. We had a really difficult time under the former [Lingle] administration—they didn’t really support reentry. But the director now is steeped in reentry and her philosophy is really very similar to ours: that most people who are incarcerated are going to come back into the community and we need to give them the services they need so they can be good contributing members of our community.”

Espero, the Democratic senator who represents the 20th Senate District and currently serves as the Chair of the Public Safety, Government Operations, and Military Affairs Committee, believes the support for reentry will find fruition in the next few years, with potentially 1,500 or perhaps even all of the 1,700 inmates now in prisons on the continental United States returned to Hawaii for the duration of their sentences.

“It’s very doable,” Espero says. “It’s just a matter of having the right attitude and political will. We didn’t have that political will from the past administration.”

The philosophical reasoning aside, Espero is very clear that he prefers fattening Hawaii’s own wallets with a State service that must be provided. “We’re exporting $50 million or $60 million a year to incarcerate the inmates on the ‘mainland’ and that alone could be a major economic stimulus for our State to have that money to be spent locally.”

Martha Torney, Deputy Director for Administration at the State Department of Public Safety, agrees the prison industrial complex is alive and well.

“That’s what has happened,” Torney says. “Private prisons are able to get states over a barrel where you’re stuck with leaving them there because you don’t have adequate bed space.”

The action item for the State is more than simply building space, and Brady is categorically opposed to any discussion of building before identifying what population Hawaii’s prisons need to serve. That, she says, hasn’t been done and should be priority one.

“There was a classification study done by the department,” Brady says, “and they found that 48 percent of the women and 23 percent of the men were community custody, which by the department’s definition means that they should be in work furlough programs or really starting their reentry into the community. It’s very frustrating to be discussing building something before we know who we’re building it for and what type of facility to build something for the people we’re serving.”

Espero agrees comprehensive data and a baseline study is needed for systemic change.

“It’s a matter of how we watch and monitor and oversee our inmates,” Espero says. “You don’t have to have all of them behind bars. Many of our inmates have drug related offenses and if we can invest in improving their lives and building their skills that can go a long way in stopping recidivism.”

If you’re already seeing dollar signs attached to more of the “study and see” approach, Brady says there is already money available: The department’s budget rose 90 percent in the last decade despite the drop by almost half in the number of inmates incarcerated in the 10 years from 1999 to 2009.

One immediate thing that would cost virtually no money would be the reopening of Hawaii Island’s Kulani prison, now home to a youth program, but once a minimum security facility where inmates learned marketable trades and skills.

“It’s very important that we open Kulani again,” Brady says. “To have effective reentry programs, we need to move our inmates through the system based on their security level and if we don’t have adequate minimum prison bedspace—which is what Kualkani is—it will be very difficult to move them out into the community. Kulani also had the best sex offender treatment program in the nation with a less than 2 percent recidivism since 1988.”

The way we treat people when they’re incarcerated is going to affect the way they act when they come out into the community. So don’t we want to create good neighbors?”


Programmed reentry is the lens through which Brady believes we all should be looking.

“What kind of outcomes are we looking for?” Brady says. “We’re looking to build safe and healthy communities. That’s what everybody wants. ... Today’s inmate is tomorrow’s neighbor. Almost everyone is going to be coming back into the community, so the way we treat people when they’re incarcerated is going to affect the way they act when they come out into the community. So don’t we want to create good neighbors?”

Torney has a more practical reason: getting someone out of the system and keeping her out.

“How we perform reentry will decide if someone will make it or not make it,” Torney says.

Community service is a big part of redemption, Torney explains, as is being employed. 

“A job is the number one indicator if someone will be coming back to us [the prison system],” Torney says. “If they’re unemployed, they have a much higher rate of coming back.”

The only homecoming Espero, Brady, and Torney would like to see is the return of Hawaii’s “mainland” prisoners as soon as possible.

Beyond the moral issue, all believe the reentry efforts and community safety will continue to be partially thwarted by the learned gang behavior that has spilled into Hawaii’s streets and into youth. Once Hawaii inmates are sensitized to a more sophisticated level of crime, reentry help becomes tougher for support teams—and it brings that violent crime Hawaii’s shores.

Brady points to a report on Hawaii recidivism by two researchers she peer-reviewed.

“When people serve their sentences abroad and they come back and then are rearrested, they are rearrested for violent crimes,” Brady says. “Where people who serve their time in Hawaii, if they are released and then rearrested, it’s generally for a nonviolent drug crime, which is the majority of our crime.”

How Hawaii’s public safety department will put into practice its change of attitude toward prisoners and prisons will soon get diagnostic assistance. On February 1, the State submitted a letter to the Department of Justice inviting the Justice Reinvestment Team to review Hawaii’s system. The program, originally started in by the Council of State Government, now operates in 14 states. The team will cull through Hawaii arrest-through-incarceration data then make policy recommendations to lawmakers on how to shift money from incarceration to community programs.

Will it work? Espero and Brady are especially hopeful. Espero plans to convene a meeting of stakeholders once the team arrives on April 12. The model is there, they say, to optimize the chances for prisoners’ reentry, but it will take a change in public attitude as much as that of the current administration—and that may be a tougher sell in the short run as budget discussions heat up and some in the public cast jaundiced eyes at monies spent on prisoners.

The full interview with Senator Will Espero, Kat Brady, and Martha Torney is available on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. Reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]


To read “Hawaii’s Imprisonment Policy and the Performance of Parolees Who Were Incarcerated In-State and on the Mainland,” click here

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