Monday, February 12, 2007

Building Something Out of Nothing

A Preface: the following is not meant to be read the in the way that one would take in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. If this means nothing to you, great—it really isn’t supposed to be read that way.

It’s no big surprise that Hawaii has a prison problem—when you live on an island, everything becomes a problem. Land is at a premium everywhere in the world, but this is especially true for sunny, tropical islands. And, when one considers that Hawaii has America’s biggest crystal methamphetamine problem in the country, it is no small wonder just how we have reached the point where the correctional system is bursting at the seams.

For many years, Hawaii jails have been overcrowded, and while discussions have been held over what to do with the “extra prisoners”, they have been sent to Arizona, Texas and Montana prisons for the time being—at a hefty price. Many of these Hawaii prisoners “abroad” are also having a hard time dealing with their non-Kanaka cellmates and have been in many a brutal ruckus. For an OpEd piece on the matter, read this link
What should be done, then? Obviously, the prison question is always answered with “Yes, we need more prisons, but not in my backyard.” How do you deal with this problem, though, when you live on an island and every piece of land is your backyard? The prisons in Halawa and Kalihi undoubtedly drive down the land values of the surrounding areas immensely—Kalihi has one of the worst reputations of any neighborhood in Hawaii—the Kuhio Park Terrace development is likened to the Marcy Project in Brooklyn or South Central Los Angeles—and the area will never recover from the stigma that the Oahu Community Correctional Center has given it. To view other Hawaii jails, visit this page

Land is at a premium in Hawaii, and we cannot afford to have any other areas of the islands viewed in such a negative way. But, we also cannot possibly continue to ship our troubled citizens away—it is simply too expensive. The money that we are shipping off to the continental United States (in the shape of inmates) would be much better served in the suffering public education system.

What can be done?
It’s quite simple: build a large state prison on the island of Kaho’olawe. Take a deep breath before you respond. I understand that to close off an entire island seems asinine, but remember that Kaho’olawe has not been inhabited for quite some time. After the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, when Marshall Law was introduced in Hawaii, the US Army took control of the island. It was used after the war as a bombing range after World War II’s conclusion, and bombing ceased on the island in the early 1990s.

The island has been left barren by all of the bombing done. It is not very hospitable, and any attempt at development would be prohibitively expensive. Would you leave your home to live on a red-dirt covered island? Didn’t think so.
The biggest obstacles to this from ever happening would be the same obstacle that prevents any audacious construction project from happening—protestors. We all know that there is a small yet vocal force of separatists in Hawaii (Kau Inoa[1]—to build a nation) that want the American government as well as non-Hawaiians out of Hawaii. Would they be upset that one of their islands would be used to house their prisoners? You bet. I would also venture a wage that they would be even more unhappy if they had a bunch of prisoners living next to their houses. The Outdoor Circle is also huge in Hawaii and have worked to keep Hawaii green. Their efforts against billboards are very admirable, but they would also oppose a prison being built on an island that was once a nature preserve. Let’s be realistic, though: the island no longer resembles a natural habitat—it more closely resembles Mars. And, the Outdoor Circle people probably also would not like their homes and communities sullied by a prison.

Having a large state prison on Kaho’olawe would not put anyone out. Sure, the native birds and flora may be inconvenienced, but they would be more hassled if an actual community was built on the island. There’s a precedent for a prison on an island, if you’ll recall—it happens to be Alcatraz and it happens to be one of America’s favorite storytelling backdrops. And, if you’re up on your knowledge of Alcatraz, you’re well aware that it is a nationally protected park with an abundance of nature. The reason that a Kaho’olawe prison would work when Alcatraz didn’t is simple—Alcatraz was too far out in San Francisco Bay and maintenance costs got too high. But, Hawaii still relies on barges and boat shipments for most of its goods. Having to divert a ship to Kaho'olawe wouldn’t be too much work—think about how Lanai, Molokai and Ni’ihau are serviced. Kaho’olawe would be no different.

It should be noted that Hawaii is one of only six states in the United States that has its prisons run at the state level instead of at the county level. And, guess who has control of the island? No, not Maui County—the State of Hawaii! A lot of bureaucratic work would have to be done, of course, but the state should definitely examine the idea, at least in an exploratory way. Something needs to be done--and quick--before the idea to build a prison Kaho'olawe comes to the minds of the state planners, only to be met with jeers from new Kaho'olawe residents of "not in my backyard!" that will be audible at the State Capitol.

[1] I love the Kau Inoa separatists—these people love Wal-Mart more than anything in the world (and love it more than anyone else in the world does), but they constantly call for all things western to leave Hawaii. I used to watch a woman who spewed Kau Inoa rhetoric (tripe) on the public access station in Honolulu every week and could not help but notice that her lau hala (dried pandanus) hat was featured prominently in Wal Mart—as were her puka shell necklaces and macadamia nut leis.