Room for Improvement
By Ronald Becker
As law-abiding citizens, we like to believe that our police departments and correctional systems work. We have confidence in law enforcement. We see police officers regularly and have an innate impression of how safe our streets are. We do not walk the corridors of our correctional institutions nor speak to those who work or are incarcerated there. We treat prisons much the way we do discarded refuse: We know there is a dump but need not go there to know everything is working fine. It's not until our garbage isn't picked up that we develop a personal interest. Same with jails and prisons. As long as inmates are incarcerated and we aren't unduly bothered by their circumstances or a riot, we tend to believe that everything is OK.
As with a dump, no one wants a prison in his neighborhood. But if we enjoy the benefits of refuse removal, then there should be some concomitant responsibility to be aware of its impact. In truth, we pay more attention to the garbage we dispose of than to the people we incarcerate. We leave that to the professionals.
The fact that 90 percent of all the incarcerated will return to the communities from which they came is an intimidating proposition, and one that contributes directly to the violation of parole and re-incarceration.
One of the questions we need to ask is: What do they bring with them when they return to the community that they didn't have when they left? The day of nonviolent offenders returning to the community as nonviolent parolees is virtually nonexistent. One must learn to be violent to survive incarceration. The Hawai'i system is rapidly becoming a reflection of Mainland prisons, primarily as a process of habitual offenders returning into the Hawai'i prison population after incarceration on the Mainland. They come back with the ability to establish commerce, organize labor, eliminate competition and form unions (prison gangs). Everything we would admire in a commercial entrepreneur; unfortunately, the foundation for a prisoner-operated criminal enterprise is violence.
When I first came to this island, the then-deputy director of the Department of Public Safety took me on a tour of the Halawa prison's diagnostic unit. I noticed there were three mattresses in a two-bed cell, one on the floor. I commented that in Texas, the prison could be sued by the inmates and be placed under court supervision because of such conditions. I was told that it was voluntary and that the inmate had a choice. The choice was to triple-bunk or be sent to Oklahoma or Arizona.
I asked why inmates would be sent to those institutions. I was told they had no choice, they had no more room. It was apparent to me during that discussion what some of the outcomes might be. Having worked in correctional systems on the Mainland, I knew that inmates would return worse for wear, and more violent than when they left. It also didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that gangs were headed this way.
Perhaps there is no solution to the growing criminal population, but there seems to be a difference between the state system and the federal system. The feds have room to spare and lease it to the state. That's probably because there are fewer federal crimes. It might be that federal judges use sentencing guidelines that provide some consistency in deciding who will be imprisoned. Also, intermediate sanctions in the federal sentencing process allow the offender to remain in the community when possible.
The whole idea of community sanctions is to keep the nonviolent offender out of the prison system if possible, to keep families together and allow the community to support those who were making an active contribution. Why take someone out of the workforce, put the family on welfare and remove the head of the household? Perhaps we need to look at what people are being sentenced to prison for and who is being sent.
The Hawai'i Legislature has said it has no way of determining the exact number of incarcerated individuals with minor children in Hawai'i. However, it estimates that there are roughly 3,200 parents of 6,700 children in the prison system. In House Bill 529, the Legislature says "an increased focus needs to be placed on the children of incarcerated individuals to maintain a parent-child bond." The bill noted that studies indicate that the children of the incarcerated suffer from being removed from their home and separated from the primary or secondary caregiver. It should not be surprising that these children in many ways are as traumatized by the incarceration of their parents as the parents themselves. In fact, these children are up to six times more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system themselves, the bill says.
In its own words, the Legislature recognized that state policies contribute to the breakdown of the family by failing to facilitate the continued relationship between the incarcerated and their children. We as educators know, as does the Legislature, that strengthening family relationships has a positive effect on the reduction of recidivism and the parent/child relationship that continues through incarceration to release. It is because of these considerations that the state created the Strengthening Keiki of Incarcerated Parents Project.
The Legislature determined that the state should take an active role in aiding these families through incarcerated-parent-child interaction programs, to ensure that these children can build and maintain strong relationships with their incarcerated parents and grow into well-adjusted, contributing members of the community.
Then the state turns around and ships male and female parents to the Mainland. First they acknowledge the absolute necessity of keeping families together and then split them apart.
We argue about where we can build new prisons and continue to send inmates to the Mainland, soothing our consciences by believing we are somehow protecting ourselves from really bad people who deserve what they get. Then we look around and find our jails and prisons are dangerous places, that we have more graffiti than ever — some of it gang-related — and throw up our hands and wonder how this ever could have happened. It's time to stop sending our neighbors to the Mainland. It cost us about $33 million in 2006. If we can't stop, then send only the violent offender, recognizing he or she will come back more violent and perhaps with a gang affiliation. It's time to pick a place regardless of the political ramifications and build the bed space we need to house inmates here.
Ronald Becker is a professor at Chaminade University who teaches courses on criminal justice. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.