The activist has firm views on how to reform Hawaii's prison system
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 31, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 2:11 a.m. HST, Dec 31, 2010
Kat Brady has been involved in community issues since arriving at the North Shore from her New York City roots 25 years ago.
She became active in the Sierra Club and engaged in teaching women with children on welfare who inhabited a homeless village in Haleiwa in the late 1980s. She says all 10 of her students soon obtained their general equivalency diplomas, and Brady then helped them get jobs.
While engaging in environmental activism in the mid-1990s as assistant executive director of the Life of the Land organization, she was, she says, "trying to figure out where the heck was all the money going" while budgets for various state environmental and social programs were being cut. She pored over state budgets and "realized the one budget in the state that's constantly rising is public safety." She then delved into the cause of the rising cost of imprisonment of criminal offenders and became the state's most active advocate of prison reform as coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons.
In 2003 she was recognized by the National Association of Civic Club's Kako'o o Kalaniana'ole Award as the outstanding non-Hawaiian for service to the Hawaiian community.
About one-third of Hawaii's more than 6,000 prison inmates are held in private prisons in Arizona by the Corrections Corp. of America, and Brady supports Gov. Neil Abercrombie's proposal to return them to Hawaii.
QUESTION: Why do you oppose sending Hawaii's prison inmates to mainland facilities?
ANSWER: People who come back from there are hardened; they're different. When we first started sending people abroad, we might have had one gang at Halawa, and it wasn't hard-core. But when we sent our people over there, all the prisons are organized by ethnicity. So when our guys went to Texas, they were like "Who are you? Mexicans?" No, so they didn't know, so our guys got together, and that was sort of the birth of USO, the United Samoan Organization, which is probably one of the biggest gangs we have, started by our guys on the continent. So when they came back, guys in Halawa (Correctional Facility) were afraid of them, so they started a gang, so now we have four gangs. And the sad part is we created this by sending people abroad, because those gangs are now spilling over into the streets.
Q: How can the return of inmates from the mainland be accomplished?
A: It's not going to be an overnight thing. I would recommend the first thing we actually have to do is create a task force of not just government people, but it needs to be community, advocates, families, the ACLU, because we want to do this right.
The problem with us sending people abroad is we never had an exit strategy. So we did a temporary thing 15 years ago and we're still in the temporary thing and there's no exit strategy, so this task force must create a real exit strategy. And the way you do that is look at who's in prison, and the majority of people in prison are either minimum or community custody, which is the lowest, least restrictive levels of custody, and by the department's own definition, they say those people could be in the community with little to no supervision.
And yet we have 66 percent of the women and more than 50 percent of the men who are in minimum or community custody.
Q: Would building prefabricated temporary buildings on prison grounds be a possibility?
A: No, because they (the Department of Public Safety) submitted an environmental assessment (EA) in 2009 and they were using money from a violent offender re-entry initiative.
They actually tried the tent structures 10 years ago in Waiawa (Correctional Center). These structures were to be for housing, programming and drug screening. ... They found from (the EA) they couldn't actually do the tent anyplace except Waiawa.
When they tried the tents before for living conditions, it was so hot in there; they don't want to air condition them. It was so hot in there it was a public health risk. ...
By opening Kulani (Correctional Center, closed on the Big Island in October 2009) they could bring back at least 200 people and get the program restarted there. That could be something they could do immediately. The second thing they could do is they could go through all the people in community custody, who have done their programming. ...
I went through everything the department could do with no new laws, no amendments, no nothing, just now with everything they have, and I found $11 million to $16 million. I'm not an economist, I don't even work for the finance department, and I could find this. Come on! There is money.
Q: Are the Hawaii prisons full?
A: We don't have 2,000 empty beds. What we do have are programs that could expand in the community and we could get people out of prison, which is the most expensive sanction, put them into a program that would help them reintegrate, and that would be like six months or so.
Q: Would people in that program still be in prison?
A: They would, yes, but they would be going out to work. Technically, it's better in the community, and we would encourage that. Now the feds -- I guess because the population is really swelling -- have decided that they're going to put more of their people who are low risk, who have done their programming, into community placement, so that they check up on them, but it's not as intensive as parole, and it's because the feds don't have parole. It's also not taking up space in a program where somebody really needs to have a lot of support, because they're kind of shaky.
Q: Do the sentencing laws need to be revised?
A: Yes. Mandatory minimums -- we've got to get rid of them. That's been one of the problems. ... Getting (rid of) mandatory minimums for ice would be really crucial. We enacted them in '95, ironically the same year we started shipping people abroad, and within four years the prison population almost quadrupled. The women's population doubled, went from 249 to over 500 in 2000, and the men's population really swelled. Most people were in for mandatory minimums, five to 10 years.
Q: Is getting rid of those mandatory minimums feasible politically?
A: Yes, because this has become a big thing around the country, because all these nonviolent drug offenders are being locked up, and jurisdictions can't afford to do that. It's not sustainable. So how did we get into this mess, and people are tracing it to the mandatory minimums; that's where the prisons really started to swell, federal and state.
Q: Are paroling and probation policies a hindrance to re-entry laws?
A: It includes the whole megillah. It's sentencing reform, it's parole-probation reform. We have a really punitive parole board. I'm working with a guy who is 59 or 60 years old. He was out nine years, a really clean record. Somebody gave him a joint, he smoked the joint. They sent him to prison for 10 years. This guy's been out nine years, he's 60 years old. What a waste of money. Then I started looking into parole and, in 2008, between January and December, they violated 244 people, which means they sent 244 parolees back to prison. They sent them for a total of 467 years for technical violations. These aren't people who committed a new crime.
Q: What other reform besides sentencing reforms?
A: Good time, early release, and that's something that I think, like, 30 states have it. We've been trying for 10 years to get that passed (in the Legislature) and they're saying it's just too difficult. It would get people out. It incentivizes people to work on their rehabilitation. I've spoken with researchers all around the country and they've all told me what works with drug offenders is incentives, not sanctions.
Q: Are you optimistic about the possibility of bringing all inmates from the mainland to the islands?
A: I really do believe that it's a new day in Hawaii. It feels different here. There's something in the air that's different. For the first time I think there really is hope, because for eight years I've been really banging my head against the wall. But I think his being a former probation officer (Gov. Neil Abercrombie), he has some understanding of the system. It's not saying that the governor and I agree on everything. We don't. But I think he's bright. I think he understands data is really important for creating good social policy.