Why are Native Hawaiians overrepresented in prison? It’s a simple question, but it doesn’t have a simple answer.
Ask the experts and you’ll get answers ranging from “oppression” to “poverty” to “lack of motivation.” There are colonization theories and there are cultural theories.
At this point, Native Hawaiians own most of the top misery indices in Hawai`i. These include high percentage in prison, high infant mortality, high rates of illness, low educational attainment, low income-level, high unemployment and high rates of drug addiction and alcoholism. They’re not even adequately represented in competitive surfing—a sport Native Hawaiians invented: “When 29-year-old Maikalani Kaiolohia Robb (a.k.a. Kalani Robb) and 36-year-old Vincent Sennen Garcia (a.k.a. Sunny Garcia) retired from the World Championship Tour last year, they became the last Native Hawaiians to compete on the coveted World Championship Tour,” reported a recent issue of Free Surf Magazine.
The facts are devastating. The last U.S. Census reports that in 2001 Native Hawaiians made up just 12 percent of the state population but represented 39 percent of our housed prisoners. By contrast, while 17 percent of Hawai`i is Japanese, they represent four percent of the prison population. Today there are now over 1,800 Hawaiian prisoners in mainland prisons.
There are various theories as to why this is the case.
“The overrepresentation of kanaka maoli in Hawai`i’s criminal justice system is analogous in many ways to the overrepresentation of minorities (especially African Americans) in correctional populations nationally,” says Dr. Marilyn Brown, an assistant professor at University of Hawai`i. “The origins of this situation are the same: racism, poverty, alienation, lack of education, and (in the case of Native Hawaiians) the effects of colonization.”
Brown says disparities in terms of health, education and income shape who appears in the system—which, she says, has become our primary “human service delivery system” for troubled people. “Disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system is just part of the syndrome,” she says.
RaeDeen M. Keahiolalo Karasuda, a doctoral candidate working on these questions with the University of Hawai`i, emphasizes that the roots are vast and deep, but says locking Hawaiians up is a colonization mechanism. She says Hawaiians are a very resilient culture and have been practicing civil disobedience for over a hundred years now. Her estimate, derived from many prison visits and research work, is that Hawai`i prisons’ realistic Native Hawaiian population today is actually closer to 70 percent.
Alternatively, one source close to the issue believes the problem lies in a basic lack of motivation. “I hear people crying, ‘They stole our land,’” he says. “That’s a cop out. I just say, ‘Stop drowning your sorrows in Budweiser, get off your butt and get a job like the rest of us.’”
He does admit that another factor might be Maui’s high cost of living, which can cause parents to have to work all the time to survive. “Then the kids run wild and no one gives a rip what they’re doing,” he says.
Ironically, Native Hawaiians living on the mainland actually do better in terms of education than those living here. They make more money, hold higher-level jobs and have fewer people living in each household. A possible explanation for this difference could be the fact that there are more working-age Native Hawaiians—20-44 year olds—who live on the Mainland than in the islands.
Other ethnic groups living in Hawai`i may have their own issues, but none seem to be having as much trouble as kanaka maoli. Some say that one reason is that other groups, like Filipinos or Portuguese could always go back to their “homeland.” That non-indigenous groups have an “out” while native people can end up feeling trapped or hopeless with nowhere else to go if their life isn’t proceeding the way they feel it should.
Another factor might be that American and Hawaiian culture just aren’t the same. Or even mix.
“Today Hawaiians are limited as to how they live,” says Carrie Ann Shirota, director of Maui’s BEST (Being Empowered and Safe Together) prisoner training and reintegration program. “Take the tradition of fishing and growing kalo (taro). If Native Hawaiians can’t fish anymore because of access issues, or issues of over-fishing, their lifestyle is changed. They are unable to do what was once considered normal. With that can come a feeling of displacement or lack of purpose—often leading to drug use. U.S. culture is based on individual rights, while Hawaiian culture is based on what’s good for the collective whole—the common good for the family or the soul.”
While a culture clash rages in some areas, officials from Maui County Correctional Center (MCCC) say most Native Hawaiian prisoners there don’t speak Hawaiian, practice any Hawaiian religion, only have a very small percentage of Hawaiian blood and are actually more “American” than anything else.
Nonetheless, racism against Hawaiians seems to be occurring within the criminal justice system. Dr. John McDonald of the University of South Carolina did a recent study of Hawai`i’s juvenile system. He concluded that Hawaiian and Samoan youth are “significantly” more likely than white or East Asian youth to receive severe court sentences.
Wherever the experts’ research or experience places them on the spectrum of ideas, most agree that something must be done. That so many Native Hawaiians are in prison is profoundly affecting the rest of the community.
Children of prisoners suffer. In fact, they’re six times more likely to go to jail themselves, according to a recent Urban Institute study.
Many of these children end up in the foster care system and eventually adopted out to mainland parents while their mothers serve their prison sentences. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act declares that children must be permanently placed in a stable living situation within 15 to 22 months of parental incarceration.
Since the average Native Hawaiian woman’s sentence is two years and two months, kanaka maoli children are often put up for permanent adoption. Usually they go to mainland parents, according to A Women’s Voice International, a woman’s advocate group.
Gang activity is also increasing. Hawai`i sends more of its prisoner to other states to serve their time than any other state. Alan Nouchi, MCCC’s acting warden, says he sees Native Hawaiian prisoners “come back [from the mainland] as if they’d gone to gang training camp.” More sophisticated gang behavior, Nouchi says, can be seen in more “advanced” drug dealing and violence.
Then there’s the cost to taxpayers. Incarceration is expensive, costing $20,000 per year to incarcerate a single drug offender. But it costs just $3,500 per year to go through the Drug Court Program, says Barbara Ann Keller, the program’s administrator. The irony there is a growing body of evidence that alternative programs are much more effective than straight incarceration.
With so many different theories on causes of the problems, some solutions are in direct opposition to others.
For example, some say Native Hawaiians are breaking the laws in unprecedented numbers, and mandatory sentences will be an effective deterrent. For example, the Three-Strikes-You’re-Out law establishes mandatory sentences of 30 years to life for habitual violent felons—those convicted of three separate violent felonies such as murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery and home burglary.
But Brown disagrees with the Three-Strikes law. “The ‘get tough on crime’ point of view argues in favor of deterrence and incapacitation for law breakers,” she wrote in a 2005 letter to the Honolulu Advertiser. “And for some serious offenders, long prison sentences may provide a deterrent. However, experts feel that this is a small group indeed.”
Additionally, most national studies show that if you get to prison, you’re likely to return.
“Eight out of 10 of Hawai`i’s drug addicts do not receive drug treatment services while incarcerated,” Karasuda wrote in another letter to the Advertiser. “The majority return to society without rehabilitation, and two-thirds return to prison within a few years.”
Maui has an array of social services for kanaka maoli. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Maui Economic Opportunity and state public schools all offer such programs as drug education and micro-loan programs to start a small business.
But Brown says they aren’t enough and that the majority of Native Hawaiians are receiving social services that start only when they get arrested.
That said, once in “the system” some of those programs are proving to be effective, if only on a small scale. For instance, Maui’s Drug Court provides treatment, supervision and support for Native Hawaiians and others with drug charges and is showing signs of success. If participants complete their program, charges are dropped. The recidivism rates are considerably lower for drug court graduates than for those who don’t utilize the program.
Then there’s the BEST program, which began in 2003 in Wailuku through a federal grant for $2.1 million to address serious and violent offenders.
BEST provides pre- and post-release services designed to address recidivism by targeting substance abuse, mental illness, underemployment, lack of training, housing and additional needs related to reintegration. Initial studies show the program may be working to cut recidivism significantly.
“Some people say we’re being soft on crime,” Shirota says. “I say we’re being smart on crime. The system is a free ride. It isn’t ‘hard-time’ like they say. Hard-time is completing the programs and doing the work to get out and stay out of the system.”
Recently BEST received a grant from the Eisenhower Foundation and will open a “BEST House” on Vineyard Street in Wailuku. The program will be similar to the Delancey Street Program in San Francisco, where former inmates and homeless operate the house, study for a GED and learn the skills necessary to help them successfully integrate back into society. Shirota says Delancey Street boasts a 90 percent success rate.
Karasuda says that much more can be done, but that there have already been many positive developments. One is a “Hawaiian cultural renewal” that gives Native Hawaiians a sense of place and pride. Shirota concurs, adding that the “BEST cultural programs have deeply resonated with Native Hawaiian clients,” who make up 60 percent of their client population.
Of course, the state Attorney General’s office disagrees, saying that cultural programs haven’t been shown to cut recidivism rates at all. In fact, they say these programs could “embolden” prisoners. For that reason, they’re moving more towards “Evidence Based Training”—programs with proven, measured results.
Still, some hope for a new correctional system master plan. Others want better funding for social programs. Many think that better education and more affordable housing will help.
In the meantime, more Native Hawaiians end up behind bars. MTW