Human quarantine: The state’s regressive policy on jails

Governor Ige's selection of the animal quarantine station as a preferred replacement site for OCCC is tragically revealing of the state's attitude toward criminal justice.

Kat Brady

The Governor held a short press conference yesterday to announce the administrationʻs site preference for the replacement of the Oʻahu County Correctional Center (OCCC). It is the Animal Quarantine Station in Hālawa. How ironic—yet very revealing—for this administration to finally say out loud how they view their constitutional responsibilities regarding those people in the “care and custody” of the state.

Another tragedy of this dysfunction is that the state is spending millions of taxpayer dollars before the work of the HCR 85 Correctional Task Force, which is creating a road map for corrections reform, and the HCR 134 Pretrial Task Force is completed in 2019. There is a plethora of research showing that what we are doing is not only wrong-headed, it is harmful. Jails are the gateway to mass incarceration.

Jeremy Travis, former President of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and one of the authors of the National Academies report, “The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S.,” has said that we now arrest and incarcerate people for things that were only sanctioned a few decades ago.

The Office of the Attorney General recently released the Crime in Hawaiʻi 2016 report and said that “Crime in Hawaiʻi today is at less than half the rate it was in the late ’70s, early ’80s and the mid-’90s.”

As of July 30, 2017, the department of public safety reported that 79 percent of those imprisoned at OCCC were charged with the lowest felony, misdemeanors, technical offenses, petty misdemeanors and violations. At $152 a day per incarcerated person at OCCC, it costs taxpayers $1,178,912 a week, $4,715,648 a month, and $56,587,776 a year for these 1,108 individuals.

Imagine having $4.7 million a month to spend on community services that are more effective and less costly in addressing a personʻs pathway to wrongdoing. Investing in a diverse array of programs that support and strengthen our people and their families, investing in education, and valuing the many resources our people inherently possess are some strategies for building strong, healthy and just communities. Along with that, we must impress on our policymakers that incarceration must be the last resort; therefore, sentencing reform is necessary if we are to move forward.

The research is clear: Building more facilities is a thing of the past. Many jurisdictions are investing in social capital and funding community-based strategies as alternatives to incarceration. The Hawaii Justice Reinvestment Initiative is in statute. We can vigorously implement it, as has South Carolina and many other jurisdictions that decided not to build jails, but to build justice instead.

Hawaiʻi has a golden opportunity, with the two task forces underway to change our course. We can create a fair and just system that understands that merely locking people up does not address the host of challenges they face; in fact, it can make things worse.

As Angela Davis said, “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.”

Kat Brady is the director of the Community Alliance on Prisons and a community justice advocate with a lifelong dedication to bringing the community’s voice into the public policy arena. She works to increase civic literacy and to encourage public participation to advocate for social, cultural, and environmental justice policy reforms that are scientifically sound, humane, and preserve human dignity.