If you exhibit any empathy at all, reading the news these days is a terrible depressing experience. Every day it seems, the President “Baby” Donald Trump and Republican-controlled Legislatures across the country sign executive orders or introduce legislation designed to curb someone’s civil liberties–voting rights, trans rights, protester rights, even the rights of documented immigrants who were born in a non-white majority nation. As if it we didn’t get enough warnings during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump clearly defines his oft-repeated slogan “Make America Great Again” as returning the nation to a time when white male supremacy reigned supreme.
To find out how these assaults on civil liberties affects us in Hawaii, I spoke with Mateo Caballero, the legal director for the ACLU of Hawaii.
MAUITIME: What’s the most important issue your office is facing?
MATEO CABALLERO: That’s harder to answer than you might think. We have a few priorities. Even before the election, we filed a complaint with the Department of Justice asking for an investigation into conditions of confinement with Hawaii prisons. People have been sleeping on the floor, there’s vermin–that’s a priority for us. We get a lot of letters from inmates.
Since the election, our biggest issue has been immigration. It started with Trump’s executive order issuing the travel ban. There were people locally who had family who was abroad when it happened and they were worried about getting back here. We’re still learning more and more of what’s going on. The courts have stopped the executive order, but there’s still a lot of fear.
A bigger issue in terms of the number of people who are affected in Hawaii is increasing enforcement–immigration and customs enforcement. The Obama Administration set up priorities on undocumented immigrants: if you were a recent arrival or had committed a serious crime, then you were a candidate for deportation. But recently the Trump Administration has done away with those priorities. There’s a lot of fear and concern that there will be increased enforcement.
And we have to be ready for whatever else comes. There have been a number of campaign promises from Trump that concern the ACLU.
MT: Such as?
MC: Essentially there are five areas we identified that we’re concerned about. There’s immigration. Then there’s access to abortion–going after women who exercise their right to an abortion. The Supreme Court could substantially curtail that right. Then there was his promise to go back to post-9/11 days on torture–the idea that “anything goes.” Even though it has been shown that torture doesn’t work, is a great terrorist recruiting tool and is completely illegal and unconstitutional. Then there was his travel ban, which was worse than we thought, targeting mainly majority Muslim immigrants. And then first amendment rights. Trump essentially said he would sue The New York Times. There’s a lot of rhetoric against the press, and he is the head of the U.S. government. We are very concerned about the threat this administration poses to the press as well as other rights under the first amendment.
MT: Let’s return to the subject of prisons. What exactly are the problems you’re finding?
MC: There are 11 correctional facilities that house Hawaii prisoners–one is in Arizona. Of those, there are nine jails operated by the State of Hawaii. Of those nine, seven are grossly overcrowded. The most overcrowded is Maui Community Correctional Center (MCCC). It’s housing double the number of inmates that it was designed to house. We’ve received a large number of complaints about it.
MT: I read that recently. What about Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC)?
MC: OCCC as well. The state is planning on replacing it because the cells designed to house two inmates are now housing three, four or five. People are sleeping next to toilets. And medical and mental healthcare seems virtually non-existent. It’s very difficult to see a doctor. You can see a nurse, but seeing a doctor is difficult. People keep getting worse, then end up having to see a doctor. It’s even worse for psychiatric care. Also, the state is not considering what changes it could make so we’re not in the same situation five to 10 years from now.
MT: Doesn’t sound good for those who view prison as a way to rehabilitate criminals.
MC: When people get out, they are completely unprepared. Many times they’re more of a danger than when they went in. The recidivism rate is very high in Hawaii–above 50 percent.
MT: I’m sorry–did you say it’s more than 50 percent?
MC: Yes. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can reduce the numbers of prisoners without compromising public safety. Most states are modernizing their correctional systems.
MT: How so?
MC: Over 50 percent of people at OCCC are there because they couldn’t afford bail. Essentially, that is criminalizing poverty. Sometimes in Hawaii it can take a while to get to trial. Other states are finding alternatives to bail. New Jersey recently passed a no cash bail system. How dangerous is this person? How likely are they to flee? If not, they don’t have to post cash. Cash, many studies have shown, doesn’t make you show up and doesn’t deter you from committing another crime. We’re behind the curve, and these are the types of reforms we’d like to see.
MT: Let’s shift gears and talk about trans rights, which made headlines recently with the Justice Department’s decision to stop protecting the rights of transgender students. What’s the impact of this in Hawaii?
MC: We of course are very supportive of trans rights. We have been working for years to see that the state doesn’t discriminate against trans students and can use the bathroom for whichever gender they identify with. The state does this, and it’s working well. But the Department of Justice recently changed their guidelines and said it was no longer sex-based discrimination. Currently the ACLU has a case on this before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hawaii is a little ahead of the curve. It’s now up to all states to stand up and defend their own.
MT: What about immigrant rights? The Trump Administration has been brutal in that regard.
MC: On immigration, one concern the ACLU has is the federal government deputizing local law enforcement. That’s a terrible practice and opens up the county to litigation. But they break rules when they detain folks. More importantly, communities will feel unsafe going to the police when an actual crime happens.
During the Obama Administration, if police picked up someone with a criminal record, they might report them [to ICE].
MT: Are local police here asking people they stop about their immigration status?
MC: There is something of that history on Maui. In 2009, at Maui police checkpoints for drunk driving, they were asking for ID and Social Security numbers and immigration status. It was very troubling. The ACLU sent letters to the Maui PD and Corporation Counsel. I’m told that this is no longer their policy. [On this matter, Maui Police public information officer Lt. Gregg Okamoto told me, “We do not train our officers to do this nor do we have a policy that mandates this.”]
MT: For my last question, it was reported that at the end of January, shortly after Trump took office, the ACLU received record donations–more than $24 million in one weekend alone. How has that helped out your office?
MC: I can’t speak to the money, but in terms of volunteers, attorneys, designers, organizers, we have seen so many people who want to work with us. This is a long-term situation–not just a few months. We expect this administration to really challenge civil rights for the next four years.
For more information on the ACLU of Hawaii, go to ACLUHawaii.org.
Cover design: Darris Hurst