CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lois Perrin earned two bachelor's degrees, one in political science and the other in judicial studies, magna cum laude, from Arizona State University in 1992. CLICK FOR LARGE
ACLU lawyer tackles state's ugly sides
Lois Perrin is at the epicenter of Hawaii's civil rights battles
Tears rolled from the girl's dark eyes as she sat with her lawyer at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.
With unchecked emotion, R.G. described her ordeal as a lesbian at the prison for teens.
The staff and other prisoners or "wards" routinely called her Butchie or Dyke, as if that were her name.
"She was told being gay was not of God, that she was going to hell, by staff members," recalled Lois Perrin, the teen's attorney. "She was also told that it was her choice, that she could change who she was, which, of course, is completely at odds with all the studies that I have seen. It was a fairly active campaign against this particular kid. It was really almost daily abuse for a period of months."
That abuse ended last year when a federal judge in Honolulu ordered the state to halt its discrimination against and harassment of incarcerated youths who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. Last June, the state settled the case, agreeing to pay $625,000 to the ACLU and its three plaintiffs, including R.G.
And while the atmosphere at the youth facility in Kailua remains far from perfect, Perrin counts that victory among the most satisfying in her tenure as legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.
It's a job that puts her front and center on most of the hot-button civil rights issues in the state, including physician-assisted suicide, medical marijuana, protests on city property, and a residency requirement for local government hiring.
On Thursday, Perrin testified against a bill before the state House Judiciary Committee that would eliminate the legal requirement for police to knock and announce themselves before they bust down a door. Her position put her at odds with state Attorney General Mark Bennett, who argued that the measure would keep important evidence admissible.
House Bill 1242 also would remove a requirement for police to make a "reasonable effort" to help people under arrest contact a lawyer or family member. Perrin and Bennett squared off on that issue as well; the committee deferred the bill.
"I think Lois is an excellent lawyer," Bennett remarked later. "She truly believes in the ACLU and the position she espouses, and she is an excellent adversary in the cases I have been opposite her. She clearly knows what she's doing."
State Rep. Tommy Waters (D, Lanikai-Waimanalo), House Judiciary chairman, also has positive words for Perrin, a frequent committee witness. "She's intelligent, articulate, passionate and always well-prepared. She will voice her opinion and oftentimes back it up with specific examples, which is terrific. It is helpful to committee members to get her perspective."
Perrin's spirited defense of Hawaii's downtrodden has brought her a long way from Pittsburgh, where she spent her childhood with a "Jewish doctor" dad and Korean-American mom. (She remains a "rabid" Steelers fan.) The family took several vacations to Maui and Perrin confesses she "fell in love" with the islands during those trips.
"For my mom, being Korean, there was a lot of cultural diversity here that was lacking in Pittsburgh," Perrin said. "And so she felt pretty comfortable coming to a predominantly Asian vacation spot. We came out probably six or seven times."
Her Korean roots manifested themselves poignantly last month when her family held a Buddhist funeral for her mother, who died in September at age 58, at the Girimsa temple in Gyeongju, South Korea.
FOR COLLEGE, Perrin picked a huge party school, Arizona State University, but apparently partied little, earning two bachelor's degrees, one in political science and another in judicial studies, magna cum laude, in 1992. At the University of Southern California law school, she worked for the law review and as a research assistant on mental health, family law and gender bias issues.
She returned to Hawaii in 1997 as clerk for U.S. District Judge Alan Kay.
"The best advice I got from my clerkship adviser was to apply to a judge that you respected intellectually and a place where you wanted to live for a year," Perrin said. "So I sent the applications to Hawaii and luckily got the interview with Judge Kay. And say luckily because it's where I met my husband. ... He was my predecessor as clerk, so we overlapped for one week."
The clerkship led to a job with a heavyweight firm, Morrison & Foerster, with offices in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and for a while Perrin felt content as a corporate litigator.
Then she was assigned to a class-action suit with the ACLU against the state of California on behalf of public-school students in poorer districts. And her perspective changed.
"They had no books," she said. "The books that they did have, some of them were so old that they were from the 1970s, so they were learning about the Soviet Union. And they didn't have books that they could take home with them for homework."
Many of the teachers had "emergency credentials" and lacked proper training in their subject matter, Perrin said.
"Some of the schools, they didn't have Bunsen burners in the lab. They had no lab equipment, they had no chemicals. ... The windows were broken and never fixed. The toilets were overflowing and never fixed. Bathrooms, when they were out of order, were simply locked, and so the kids were never able to go to the bathroom."
Perrin was part of the team that conducted the initial interviews with the students, parents and teachers. The case, Williams et al v. California, was a "very hard-fought litigation" that was settled after Arnold Schwarzenegger took office as governor, she said.
"And it was a life-changing experience for me to work on such important issues with such wonderful people and realize there was more to the practice of law than what I had already been doing," she said. "That was my epiphany that I wanted to go into civil rights work. It really was such a remarkable awakening."
So when the opportunity arose to succeed Brent White as ACLU Hawaii's legal director, Perrin jumped at the chance. Her husband, attorney Richard Chisholm, also was ready to return to the islands.
With Vanessa Chong, executive director of ACLU Hawaii, and a small staff, Perrin occupies a downtown high-rise office with a panoramic view of Diamond Head and the waterfront. But Perrin faces away from the window as she works, her attention drawn not to Honolulu's beauty but its uglier sides.
The youth prison case still saddens and angers her.
"These are really good kids who have just lost their way," she said. "When you interview them, they are sweet, bright and inquisitive."
R.G., the lesbian, was "strikingly gorgeous" with short brown hair and brown eyes -- and the girl wept at almost every visit, Perrin said.
Her other two clients in the case were J.D., a boy taken by the other wards to be gay, and a runaway known as C.P., who was born male but was undergoing preoperative hormone therapy to become a female.
"C.P. was originally housed on the girls' side. Ultimately, the girls at HYCF were sent to Utah for a period of time and, for whatever reason, it was never clear, they didn't take C.P. with them. And instead C.P. was put in isolation, for her protection, because they didn't know what else to do with her. And then they decided to house her over on the boys' side. That was the decision of the administrator over there. When she was on the boys' side, very predictably, she was subjected to horrific sexual harassment and abuse.
"There were kids that would masturbate in front of her, kids who would make fun of her every day, kids who would pull her hair," Perrin said. "The facility was in such a state of chaos that they didn't have the policies, procedures or the training to stop any of it, and so it was this relentless campaign of abuse and harassment."
She added: "They need a huge culture shift out there. They are going to have to retrain people from the very beginning on how to be accepting of youth in a facility. And while I wouldn't say it's fixed, I would say that we are hopefully on the road to recovery."