Two days ago, I read a Honolulu Civil Beat article about the approval of a new detention facility in Aiea, not too far from where I live. I was instantly indignant as soon as I read the piece and not because of the facility’s location in proximity to my home, but because we do not need any more jails in Hawaii. Truly, the last thing our islands need is a new jail. Jails and prisons are commonly confused and used interchangeably, but are two entirely different forms of incarceration. Jails are confinement facilities that house people prior to sentencing or “pretrial” as well as those with typically shorter sentences. In essence, people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime are sent to jail mostly because they can’t afford to pay their bail, while others are locked up for short term stays (typically one year or less). While I mostly talk about abolishing prisons, I also believe that we must eliminate and destroy all jails because they are statistically filled with abuse, violence, racism, and injustice.
Jails in the United States are notoriously racist as they’re home to more Black citizens than brown and white combined. This racial imbalance is an effect of the criminal legal system’s inherent purpose: to continue the system of slavery in a different way. Similarly, jails in Hawaii house overwhelming numbers of kānaka maoli. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, one of the leading organizations in criminal justice research, 1,615 Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders per 100,000 people in that category are incarcerated with Black, Native American/Native Alaskan, and Hispanic citizens following behind, while white citizens are the smallest group of imprisoned people, coming in at 412 per 100,000. This statistic is extremely important in understanding why jails in Hawaii only breed violence and recidivism for Native Hawaiians, especially when we realize that prior to Western contact, kānaka never utilized incarceration when harm was done to others or “crimes” were committed. Native Hawaiians are already the largest population of homeless people on the islands, which is incredibly ridiculous considering this is our ancestral homeland, but we are also over represented in state and federal facilities. Building new jails in Hawaii would only mean over-policing and incarcerating the islands’ indigenous people, twisting the knife in an already historically unjust wound created by the USA.
Not only would new jails in Hawaii lead to the imprisonment of more native people, but they would also take money away from programs and resources that Hawaii residents, and specifically kānaka maoli, truly need. People in Hawaii are always talking about how corrupt our government is and how messed up we are as a fake state, which are both valid criticisms, but relying on incarceration does nothing to keep us safe or stimulate a better society. We are already one of the most expensive places to live in the world and we struggle with an overwhelming homeless population and increasing poverty among people who were born and raised here. What Hawaii needs is not new jails, it needs better pay for all of the teachers that are quitting education or leaving for the US because they can’t afford to live here anymore; realistically affordable housing for all residents, not the million dollar sky rises the Mayor and Governor love; funding for community programs that keep kids entertained in healthy and positive ways; healthcare for all so people aren’t avoiding medications or doctor visits; resources to eliminate the poverty that plagues Hawaii residents almost more than any other group in America; and so many more grassroots campaigns that would provide people in Hawaii with the safest and most beneficial environments to live in. Creating new jails in Hawaii, even ones with the best education and therapeutic programs, isn’t going to fix our crime or drug issues. “Better facilities” are still torture chambers that operate on racism and capitalism. We need to use our imaginations and desire a world that’s more than incarceration. Like Angela Y. Davis said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” And we’re going to transform Hawaii and the world into places free of prisons and jails.