President Obama made history in Oklahoma this week. Yesterday he went to the Federal Correctional Institution El Reno, which once housed the infamous domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the ones behind the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The visit makes Obama the first sitting president to ever visit a prison.
And he has a good reason to go. The visit highlights his campaign to reform the harsh laws on the books that punish non-violent offenders.
In 2011, it was estimated that 2.2 million people in the United States are incarcerated in federal, state, and local institutions—that puts our country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. In a report to the United Nations, it was estimated that African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Based on that trend, “one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino males—compared to one of every seventeen white males.”
The numbers are staggering enough to get the President moving. This week Obama shortened sentences of 46 offenders surpassing Lyndon B. Johnson’s record for the most commuted sentences.
Even though Hawaii’s imprisoned population is generally lower than the national average, we still contribute to the incarcerated populous. On top of that, we add peculiar problem to the prison industry: we ship them out.
Back in 1995, we started the business of exporting our incarcerated. In the name of saving money, three hundred souls were shipped out to privately-run prisons in eastern Texas near the Louisiana border. It didn’t take long before trouble started. Inmates protested the food, prison wages, and fights broke out. The guards opened fire on the inmates and later the Department of Justice investigated and found them to be poorly trained.
Our authorities remained hopeful and two years later, we sent another 300 to Texas, including women to a different facility. Problems persisted. The private prisons were cited by Texas and federal authorities for poor conditions and badly trained guards. Hawaii still shipped out her inmates. It even expanded the program to other facilities all over the country.
Hawaii inmates were watched closely back here. Most felons sentenced to prison by Hawaii courts had never been to places like Mississippi. Most hadn’t been bunked with convicts from places like Montana, Texas, or other faraway places. Surely they encountered gangs that had no real ties to the islands. It’s no understatement to say that they had a hard time adjusting.
Take the food. Fifteen years ago, in another private prison in Arizona, Hawaii inmates caused a riot. For ninety minutes they smashed windows, attacked guards, smashed television sets and computers. They even held a guard hostage and another broke his hand. The reason for the riot? Hawaii inmates couldn’t stand how the rice was being cooked.
There are other more serious issues too. Over the years, the State has been sued by inmates citing all kinds of civil rights violations ranging from sexual assaults against female inmates to failing to protect them from other inmates and gang violence.
Despite all of the problems, (the Department of Justice in 1998 declared the private prison in Texas a form of cruel and unusual punishment), we still keep doing it.
Former governor, Neil Abercombie, wanted to change that. He made it a campaign promise to bring home our inmates. By the time he took office in 2010, most of our inmates on the mainland were being housed in Arizona.
By 2014, Abercrombie was boasting that he brought down the number of mainland inmates from 2,000 to 600. He was proud of the opening of a new facility on the Big Island that kept jobs, money, and the incarcerated in our State.
The governor argued that when we ship out inmates we are making it even harder for them to keep ties with their families, roots, and their community. It only makes the eventual transition on parole and back into society that much harder.
Neil, as expected, has his critics. No one was exactly ready to step up to the plate and build a facility. The reason was simple: no one wanted a prison in their back yard.
It’s too bad. Prisons do bring jobs and money into the local economy. More importantly, we can avoid ripping families apart when we sentence a person to prison. And although Abercrombie brought the numbers down, he still failed to eliminate the inmate-exportation industry all together.
So far David Ige hasn’t said a word about it, and we are still shipping ‘em out. Perhaps someday we can end it and bring everyone back home. In the meantime, let’s hope the folks in Arizona learned how to make rice.