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Native Hawaiian mass incarceration: Hawai’i’s dirty little secret

Hawai’i is humanity’s paradise on earth. However, what is little known is how racked these islands are with overwhelming issues like homelessness, rising ocean levels, US test bombings, racism, poverty, and mass incarceration. While most of these issues affect all on the islands, high levels of incarceration disproportionately affect Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

According to Pew Research, Native Hawaiians make up nearly 21% of the total statewide population. It is therefore shocking that they make up 40-60% of the prison population in both Hawai’i and in Arizona (which houses two private prisons built specifically for Native Hawaiian inmates). The disparity across ethnicity in the state of Hawai’i is even more prevalent when considering the Attorney General office’s 2009 study, which showed that Native Hawaiians constituted 25% of all arrests made in 2008, despite only comprising 21% of the total population. Racial and ethnic groups that have a higher representation in Hawai’i, such as the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino communities —who combined make up 35% of the state population – only represent 15% of the arrests made in 2008.

This disparity in arrests cannot be correlated to higher rates of crime amongst Native Hawaiians. Moreover, a report published by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs found that even though Hawaiians don’t report using drugs at a higher rate than people of other races, they still go to prison at a disproportionate rate—additionally, people of every other race on the island (except Hispanic) receive shorter sentences on average and have more likelihood of getting parole.

One incentive to keeping Native Hawaiians in prison longer is simply money. In a private prison industry, the state and the prison corporation are making money by filling beds. Section 1 of the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution states that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” With all forms of slavery banned in the United States except in the case of imprisonment, private prisons have created a monopoly of free labor that exploits populations who are already unfairly targeted in the criminal justice system. More people in prison means more laborers and more products made and sold for high profits to the owners of these prisons.

These private prisons, of course, are also rife with controversy and corruption. In 2010, inmates at the Red Rock prison in Eloy, Arizona, rioted, causing injury to several guards. Not long after, inmates brought suit against the prison guards and officials, citing both neglect and even torture. At a women’s prison in Kentucky in 2009, so many Hawaiian inmates complained about sexual abuse from prison guards that they were all temporarily flown back to Hawai’i. No guards were ever convicted of a crime, according to Prison Watch Network.

Even after surviving the violence and corruption in prison, the struggles aren’t over when inmates leave. In the book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander discusses the many obstacles that plague ex-offenders after leaving prison. She writes, “…civil penalties, although not considered punishment by our courts, often make it virtually impossible for ex-offenders to integrate into the mainstream society and economy upon release… unable to drive, get a job, find housing, or even qualify for public benefits, many ex-offenders… [land] back in jail after failing to play by rules that seem hopelessly stacked against them.” This rings true for Hawaiian inmates, especially those sent 3,000 miles away from their family, culture, and everything they have ever known. When prisoners return to Hawai’i after being released, they are met with additional problems – unsustainable costs of living and lack of housing are already at a crisis level and public benefits are elusive even to non-offenders. In another cruel move, Hawai’i allows courts to immediately terminate parental rights in situations where parents are deemed mentally ill or unable to provide care for more than 90 days. Laws like this allow the government to continue removing native children from their homes and cultures in order to put them in “better” homes—this is one reason that Native Hawaiian children make up 50% of all children in foster care in the state, according to the Hawai’i DHS.

The only chance for Native Hawaiians who have been incarcerated to reintegrate into their community is by returning to traditional cultural values. The importance of family and collectivism cannot be overstated—our community did not even have words for the concept of extended relatives because our k’puna (ancestors) saw all our people as being brother and sister or parent and child. In this way, the hurt of having our children taken from us or our men being sent across the ocean is even more compounded. Community based organizations like ‘Aha K’ne and ‘Ohana Ho’opakele strive to find a way to return to these concepts, and to the ideas of pu’uhonua and ho’oponono, the restorative justice practices that sustained our nation for thousands of years. Their efforts include the building of traditional mens’ houses, the creation of the Native Hawaiian Bar Association that offers ho’oponopono as an alternative to court in some cases, and periodic trips to Arizona prisons to have seasonal ceremonies with prisoners there.

Our people need more—our very lives depend on it. My own great-uncle Samuel Kaleleiki Jr. dedicated his life to prison abolition and returning to tradition. Keeping prisoners closer to home, allowing them to partake in culturally-based restorative processes, and bringing back the inherent importance of kuleana, or responsibility to your community—these are just some of the ways that we can start setting our people up for success. The generations before us have begun this challenging work for us—will we continue their legacy?

Līlī is a Native Hawaiian teacher who specializes in education that centers around indigenous, immigrant, and diaspora communities.


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