• A state prison in Arizona. (AAP)Source: AAP
With prison conditions in the spotlight during the US nationwide strike, some campaigners were hoping the transfer of Hawaiian inmates to Arizona private prisons would get wider attention.
Brooke Fryer

3 Oct 2018 - 10:52 AM  UPDATED 3 Oct 2018 - 10:57 AM

The over-representation of incarcerated Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) in Arizona prisons was one issue raised during the recent nationwide strike in the United States.

Some demands of the 19-day strike, which ended on September 9, included: ‘an immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans’; and ‘immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies’.

Campaigners, such as Eric Tong, a PhD student at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, were hoping to raise awareness of the practice of transferring of male Indigenous inmates from Hawaii to private prison facilities in Arizona.

Mr Tong highlighted in a Twitter thread how Kānaka Maoli inmates are being transferred to Saguaro Correctional Centre, which is run by detention centre and prison contractor CoreCivic.

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CoreCivic has been contracted by the Department of Public Safety in Hawaii since 1998 to house some of its inmates in Arizona's Saguaro Correctional Centre. The centre was built specifically to house Hawaiian inmates. 

The company also has a contract to house Hawaiian inmates at its Red Rock Correctional Centre in the state.

In August 2018, 1453 inmates were being held at the Saguaro Correctional Centre, with 551 self-identifying as Kānaka Maoli. 

“Over the years Hawaii's inmate population has increased but prison space has not,” a Hawaii Department of Public Safety spokesperson told NITV News. 

“If we did not have the ability to send inmates to Saguaro Correctional Centre, our largest in-state facility would be grossly overcrowded.

“They can only return when sufficient bed space becomes available in Hawaii.” 

Kānaka Maoli men over-represented

Carrie Ann Shirota, a lawyer with Hawaii Justice Coalition and Soros Justice Fellow, told NITV News Kānaka Maoli males are being sent to Arizona at rates much higher than other inmates.

She said they are also more likely be serving longer sentences. 

“The majority of men who are sent to these private prisons [in Arizona] are Kānaka Maoli. They are already disproportionately over-incarcerated and over-represented… but they are also disproportionately sent from their ancestral homeland,” said Ms Shirota.

Twenty-one per cent of the state-wide population are Kānaka Maoli, according to 2015 Pew Research data.

However Indigenous Hawaiians make up 39 per cent of the prison population in Hawaii, and 41 per cent of the out-of-state prison population, as reported by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 2010.

Ms Shirota says Hawaii's signing of a new three-year contract with CoreCivic last year means inmates will continue to be disconnected from their 'ohana'.

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“To physically move a person from their ancestral land… the idea that Hawaiians come from the land, they will return to the land… just moving people is injury to the person’s cultural identity,” Ms Ann Shirota said. 

She believes the way Kānaka Maoli men are allowed to practice culture is very limited in Arizona.

“It is very rare they are even allowed to gather… It’s not just like you can meet anytime you want,” she said.

However the department told NITV News the inmates are allowed to practice culture at any time.

“All inmates are allowed to participate in Native Hawaiian cultural programs at all of our facilities, including the contracted prison in Arizona, if they so choose,” the department said.

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