My Civil Beat column this week tries to explain the modern history of Hawaii’s prison system, which began in the 1960s and 1970s as a plan to create a modern and humane way to deal with crime (“Ian Lind: Falling Short Again On Prisons“).
It’s a sad story of bureaucratic inertia, administrative infighting, and political opportunism destroying what was seen at the time as a remarkably innovative plan to recreate and modernize the state’s prison system.
I’ve gotten just one comment so far on the column, an email from an old friend who has spent his life dealing with prison issues. Russ Immarigeon wrote:
I just read your recent column about prison-building plans in Hawaii. What a terrific column! Man, it’s so rare to hear someone with such a fine sense of the history of failure of prison-building proposals. Not only that, I think you hit the target on why past plans failed and future plans are likely to fail.
Here are the first few paragraphs of the Civil Beat column.
Forty years ago, Hawaii tried to re-envision and reform the state’s old and obsolete prison system. The aim: to create a prison system second to none.
The magazine of the American Correctional Association, an organization of prison professionals, reported that Hawaii’s new prisons were expected to be “the most modern, the most humane and the most sophisticated anywhere.”
But even as the new buildings were going up, the widely hailed vision was being undermined by bureaucratic inertia and infighting, and by the Legislature’s failure to fund key parts of the system.
And with a surge in crime brought about, in part, by the unprecedented size of the the baby boom generation, we saw the arrival of a new political era that leveraged the fear of crime into a potent campaign issue, first nationally and then locally.
Instead of leading the nation, Hawaii’s new prison system was overcrowded on the day it opened. The state has spent much of the past several decades struggling with chronic overcrowding and administrative woes, continuing allegations of civil rights violations, lawsuits, and repeated periods of direct federal supervision of several of its facilities.
In the process, the explosive growth of the prison population has become a huge drain on the state’s budget, pulling money away from desperate needs in education, health care, family services, and on and on.
This history is rather depressing.
But the current reality is even more depressing.
The prisons have become a sacred cow. The public knows little about what goes on in them because they have become closed institutions and because most of us don’t want to know.
We’ve lost the understanding that these aren’t simply “criminals”, but are sons, brothers, uncles, and friends who have gotten into trouble and need a way out.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was more community concern about what went on in our prisons and jails. There were community groups with considerable social and political clout that were actively involved in prison issues. Things didn’t go totally unnoticed.
Today it seems quite different. The prison and jails are far more isolated from daily life of the rest of the public. Weak administration allows chronic conditions to continue (poor health care for prisoners, excessive overtime and favoritism among guards, inability to staff family visits, etc, etc).
And now, with preciously little attention to the deeper issues, Governor Ige is pressing for approval to commit half a billion dollars to moving the Oahu Correctional Center so that developers can access the current site in Kalihi, and other private interests can profit on constructing a new facility. All with little, if any, public discussion of why we’re doing this and, far more importantly, where this is taking us.
I hope that some of you have access to CB and can check out the column.