Cliff Matias
Halawa Correctional Facility in Honolulu.

Addressing the Native Hawaiian Inmate Issue

Cliff Matias
1/23/13

 

On December 27th the Hawaiian justice system addressed the issue of Native Hawaiians being more likely to serve a prison sentence than any other ethnic groups in their home state, while taking a step in the right direction to fixing the issues.

A press conference was held at the state capitol featuring a nine-member Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force that addressed the disproportionately high number of Native Hawaiians who are incarcerated. The task force, formed by the Legislature, was given the task to come up with recommendations following a September 2010 report commissioned by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. That report showed that Native Hawaiians make up nearly 40 percent of those imprisoned by the state, 41 percent of the parole revocations but only 24 percent of the population.

“Native Hawaiians, in their homeland, are overrepresented in every stage of the criminal justice system. This is a tragic reality and cannot be denied,” said Matthew Broderick, chairman of the task force.

During the summer of 2012 the task force began holding public meetings with inmates at various correctional facilities on all the islands. Discussed in the report where the high rate of recidivism among the Native inmates and ways to reduce it. Some of the recommendations included expanding cultural programs and implementation of a state Native Hawaiian identification card which would allow easier access to housing, jobs and other programs upon release. Another recommendation was prohibiting the state from sending Native Hawaiian inmates to the mainland for incarceration in privately run facilities, like the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona which currently houses more than 1,900 inmates from the Hawaiian Islands. “The cultural dislocation of taking a Native Hawaiian and putting him in Arizona, where all he sees is cement is not right and that has to change,” said Broderick.

The task force found that disproportionate representation of Native Hawaiians in prisons suggests implicit, unconscious bias against the Native population by law enforcement, court and corrections employees – which led to the recommendation of additional training in ways to mitigate treatment. The task force reported, “Native Hawaiians have suffered from severe intergenerational, historical and political trauma from the loss of land, language and culture. This collective trauma has a negative economic, health, cultural and educational impact on individuals, and often manifest itself into criminal activity.”

The task force also addressed the need for a complete overhaul to coincide with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative by the New York-based Council of the State Governments Justice Center. The initiative recommended that the Hawaii Paroling Authority disallow prison inmates from choosing to “max out” – serving their entire sentence behind bars so they can be released without supervision or rehabilitation. Using culturally based rehabilitation programs to help ease inmates back into society has worked in other places. The Navajo Nation Corrections Project was a pioneer in using traditional culture to promote dignity and recovery through access to culturally appropriate religious rites and ceremonies.

Kat Brady, coordinator for the Honolulu-based Community Alliance on Prisons said the recommendations are a step in the right direction in a state that has been slow to address the issue of a disproportionate share of people of color who are incarcerated.

(To view the entire report, go to oha.org/nativehawaiianjusticetaskforce.)

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