Prisons policy puts community at risk


POSTED: Monday, August 31, 2009

Today's inmate is tomorrow's neighbor. More than 95 percent of incarcerated individuals will return home some day.

As a community, we all have a stake in ensuring that individuals released from incarceration have the necessary treatment, programming and skills to reintegrate back to our communities.

Across the United States, jurisdictions are realizing this and working hard to create or enhance comprehensive re-entry systems to stop the flow of people returning to prison. They are implementing innovative approaches to corrections.

Unfortunately, Hawaii has taken another tack. Our love affair with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has led to the incarceration of more low-level drug offenders who can then be shipped off to CCA prisons.

The Criminal Justice Institute Inc. was contracted by the Department of Public Safety to reclassify all of Hawaii's incarcerated individuals. Its preliminary report found that 63 percent of males and 84 percent of females incarcerated in Hawaii's correctional system are nonviolent lawbreakers. The majority of these individuals are projected to be classified as needing either minimum or community custody, the lowest security levels in prison.

That is why the idea of closing the program-intensive Kulani Correctional Facility in Hilo, a minimum-security prison and one that the data suggests has the most effective sex offender treatment program in the country, makes no sense.

Kulani also offers a range of programming and work options to help individuals successfully re-enter the community. Everyone works at Kulani and has the opportunity to acquire skills such as operating heavy equipment, getting certified in automotive mechanics and earning college certificates in Horticulture, to name a few programs.

Doesn't public safety demand that we prepare individuals to rebuild their lives, restore their ohana and help to revitalize their communities?

Why would we want to incarcerate individuals for minor drug crimes when all the data shows that substance abuse is more effectively addressed in the public health arena, not the criminal justice system?

At a recent meeting, Circuit Judge Steven Alm asked city Prosecutor Peter Carlisle if his office would consider sending minor drug offenders to a HOPE-type program that serves swift but short sentences (weekends) instead of prison so that those with jobs could remain employed. Carlisle answered with an emphatic “;No!”;

It is this kind of draconian thinking that is responsible for our banishing thousands of our sentenced felons, the majority of whom are nonviolent and warranting either minimum or community custody, to the hands of prison profiteers such as CCA.

CCA's staff is poorly trained, underpaid and its annual reports have admitted serious problems with staff retention; hence it is not equipped to handle chronic and hard-to-manage individuals.

The administration has admitted that its main concern is cost, yet it has not made the correlation of locking up low-level lawbreakers and the decline in services that actually prevent crime such as substance abuse treatment, educational programs and services such as job skill development and health care.

CCA's Otter Creek Correctional Center in eastern Kentucky is a good example of what happens when we are concerned only about dollars. It appears the Hawaii monitors were observing with “;eyes wide shut”; because the community certainly knew and informed the department of some of the unsavory things going on there and in other CCA prisons.

When money is Hawaii's “;value”; or the criteria upon which we base important decisions, we are all at risk.

This is Hawaii. We have a culture of caring about each other and taking care of each other.

How can we make this administration understand our deepest community values—aloha (love, mercy, compassion), kuleana (responsibility), lokahi (unity, agreement, accord), and laulima (cooperation, working together)?