The State of Aloha

Hundreds of years ago, England faced a problem with overcrowding prisons. There were too many criminals for the country’s jails and prisons. The aging hulks of defunct warships anchored in the Thames River were also overcrowded with inmates.

The solution was called the presciently Orwellian phrase “transport.” The guilty and sentenced were sent away to faraway penal colonies that would later become known as Georgia and Maryland. Then after losing the colonies, English convicts were sent to an even more far-flung place: Australia.

It was nothing short of a disaster. If they survived the grueling passage, they lived in a penal colony. Starvation and disease were ever present. Despite the well-documented realities of transport, the English continued to send its unwanted to Botany Bay.

From our perspective, transport sounds inhumane and cruel, something you’d find only in a dusty history book or a Charles Dickens novel. But let me tell you about a place called Eloy, Ariz.

It’s a desolate place around 60 miles southeast of Phoenix. The former railroad stop (it’s believed the name came from the acronym for “East Line of Yuma”) now boasts a population of around 18,000. Around 30 percent of the city’s population live below the poverty line. If you or your family have been touched by our state’s criminal justice system, chances are you are very familiar with this desert town. That’s because Eloy’s biggest employer is Corrections Corporations of America, a for-profit prison that houses inmates from Hawaii.

That’s right. If you are sentenced to prison by a judge here on Maui or anywhere else in the state, there’s a good chance you could end up thousands of miles away in a private prison. You will stay locked up in a local facility until one day it’s announced that you’re “flying out.” Off you go on a private jet plane chained to a seat for hours with other inmates surrounded by heavily armed guards. Family members who want to actually see you will have to fly to a major western city, rent a car, and drive out to the desert.

This all started because the governor faced a crisis similar to the old English problem. Hawaii’s prisons had become overcrowded, out of date and dilapidated. The governor contracted with private prisons on the Mainland as a temporary “stop-gap measure.”

That governor was Ben Cayetano and the “stop-gap measure” was anything but temporary. We started shipping members of our community to the Mainland in 1995; we have never, ever stopped.

Gov. Cayetano’s administration saw the promulgation of extremely harsh sentencing laws. Hawaii and the rest of the country got caught up in this bravado of being “tough on crime” by imposing laws that guaranteed long and inflexible sentences. That meant more people in prison, which logically meant more prisons.

The problem, of course, is that most folks don’t want their government building a prison when schools and roads need fixing. So the governor made a deal with the devil and started to transport inmates.

We still do it. Politicians have campaigned on trying to bring our inmates home. The number has reduced, but it still hasn’t been eliminated. The whole thing reminds me of drug addicts. Everyone wants them to quit. Sometimes the addicts themselves want to quit. But they just can’t. They’re hooked. In this case the addict is the state. We are addicted to locking people up — people that don’t necessarily pose a real or significant threat to the community. Not only that, it’s so addicting that we can’t even afford to house them here so we surrender them to a corporate-run prison system. Like most addictions, it’s unhealthy.

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie campaigned on breaking the addiction. He said the practice of shipping out inmates “is dysfunctional all the way around — socially, economically, politically and morally.”

But he couldn’t do it. We quietly signed on for another contract with CCA and continue to do so.

There was some hope at the start of this legislative session. Task forces, scholars, lawyers and reform advocates have all pointed out that long prison sentences do not fight crime. Transporting inmates disrupts the community and in many cases creates more criminality.

This last legislative session saw a bill that would put an end to the whole affair. The bill would have mandated a reduction in Mainland inmates by July and would have ended the practice of transporting them by 2035. Many saw this as a real chance at ending it.

But the bill died in the House. Rep. Gregg Takayama called it “unrealistic.” Next year will be the 25th year of transporting inmates. If history is any indicator, we have a long way to go. It took 62 years for England to break its addiction and stop transporting inmates to Australia.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”