How Hawaii reduced its population of girls in prison to zero

Hawaii reached the milestone earlier this year of having no girls in its only youth correctional facility — a first in state history, officials say.

It was a jubilant moment for the facility’s administrator, Mark Patterson, who has worked for nearly eight years to reduce the juvenile prison population.

A decade ago, over 100 teenagers were imprisoned in the facility. When Patterson arrived two years later, the number had dropped by about half, according to data from the Department of the Attorney General and the state’s Office of Youth Services.

For Patterson, who came to the youth facility after running the Hawaii Women’s Community Correctional Center, reducing the girl population required reducing the number of youths placed on probation, as offenders were often sent to his establishment. It also meant taking into account that they were the “most vulnerable of the people at high risk” and had often suffered heavy trauma from things like sexual exploitation, abuse in the home or exposure to drug addiction. , did he declare.

“When I say zero girls in the system, it’s because it was a conscious effort to focus on a particular profile of girls in our systems,” Patterson said.

Patterson and other state officials and advocates for juvenile justice reform have set out to prevent at-risk youth from engaging in behaviors that send them into the system in the first place, an effort that, when it is applied on a large scale, has contributed to further reduce probation sentences for women. more than two-thirds from 2014 to 2021, according to the State Attorney General’s Department. Experts say Hawaii can be a model for other states on how to institute alternatives to more traditional punitive models of justice for girls and boys.

A new way

Since 2001, the number of girls in residential care nationwide, which includes correctional facilities and shelters, has tended to decline, according to 2019 data from criminal justice reform group The Sentencing Project. But while girls make up about 15% of incarcerated youth, they make up about a third of those locked up for low-status offenses like truancy or curfew violations — a problem Hawaii has faced from forehead.

With Project Kealahou, Hawaiian for “the new way,” the state Department of Health aimed to address widespread trauma among “at-risk” girls through community services such as peer mentoring and counseling. therapeutic intervention focused on repairing family relationships.

The six-year, federally funded effort was modeled after an earlier program, Girl’s Court, which sought to meet the needs of at-risk girls and juvenile offenders by providing a supportive environment and positive role models, including in recreational contexts. The Kealahou Project has also used youth development programs to provide activities, such as hula dancing groups and paddle lessons, as part of its “trauma-informed care” – a model that recognizes the impact that traumas have had on incarcerated youth and how coping mechanisms and criminal activity often intersect.

Because power dynamics in prisons can resemble abusive relationships, trauma-informed care attempts to ensure that incarcerated adolescents do not relive past harmful experiences and, to this end, it provides guidelines that aim to promote mutual respect between young people, caregivers and justice. system leaders as well as collaboration between therapists and correctional officers on how to interact with inmates.

For the first time in state history, Hawaii has no girls in its only youth correctional facility.Tia Hartsock

The approach has resulted in “significant improvement” in incarcerated youth in levels of depression, emotional problems and mood scores, prompting state lawmakers to extend funding for the program.

Tia Hartsock, who served as director of the Kealahou project, said she and other officials studied the records of at-risk girls to help Patterson and others. determine where the incarcerated youth “fell through the gaps” in the education and mental health systems and other areas and to prevent this from happening again in the future.

“I was thinking, how badly did we have to fail at every touchpoint of these kids to end them up in jail?” she says.

A place of healing

Patterson used the information to focus on healing incarcerated girls through therapeutic programs.

He asked for help from the Vera Institute, a national non-profit organization that works to reduce the incarceration of girls. Sifting through state data, they found that the girls were locked up largely for misdemeanor or probation violations like running away, truancy, and petty theft — behaviors often linked to attempt to survive on the streets, said Hannah Green, program manager for the nonprofit Initiative to End the Incarceration of Young Girls.

Kimberly Takata, who works as a counselor at the nonprofit Pu’a Foundation, which seeks to help girls in the youth correctional facility get out of prison, trains previously incarcerated young women to become mentors for girls in part of the rehabilitation effort.

Born while her mother was incarcerated in a youth facility in the 1980s, she said she suffered sexual trauma at a young age and began numbing her shame with drugs and running away from home before lock herself in there.

“And I had to carry this on my own and not tell anyone because I was so ashamed. … That’s where survival mode comes in. You’re out on the street and you do whatever it takes to make money,” Takata explained.

Takata, who has witnessed changes in the state’s juvenile justice system, said the support system in place for the girls has been transformative.

“People understand trauma now,” she said, adding, “It’s my passion, helping young people and women because I was there. … It’s just an amazing full circle.

Under Patterson’s leadership, which included advocating for increased state spending on the youth correctional facility, the 500-acre property nestled at the foot of Olomana Mountain, grew into a sprawling facility focused on rehabilitation.

Where once there was only a prison and a school for incarcerated youth, the new Kawailoa Youth and Family Welfare Center now offers on-site vocational training programs, a center for victims of sex trafficking, a shelter for homeless teenagers, and opportunities for young people to farm and herd livestock.

“When you actually work and cultivate the land and produce a product and then eat it or provide for the community, there is a sense of value of who you are and your place in the community,” said Patterson. “When you touch the earth, the earth touches you, and all that waste within you will turn into earth so you can be whole again.”

Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center
The Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center is now a sprawling rehabilitation-focused facility. Tia Hartsock

Model for the nation

In addition to its work in Hawaii, the Vera Institute has undertaken similar efforts in New York, Maine, and Santa Clara, California, all of which have achieved zero girls for periods over the past two years. The nonprofit’s primary strategy was to work with government leaders and communities on how best to disrupt the paths taken by minors through the justice system.

“I think any state can replicate it,” Green said. “It just takes intentionality, it takes commitment, it takes focus.

Green also said she thinks states can make similar progress with incarcerated boys, provided they focus on gender-specific behaviors that can lead to imprisonment, such as feeling compelled to display behaviors ” macho” that can result in violent offenses such as sexual assault and theft. Vocational programs also help adolescent boys overcome contributing issues such as drug use and build self-confidence, said Melissa Waiters, whose nonprofit, Kinai’ Eha, helps minors in the correctional facility in Hawaii and elsewhere to earn GED degrees and find work in fields like construction and even medicine.

The cost of keeping young people out of prison pales in comparison to the cost of lost opportunities and job prospects for those locked up, she said.

“We have to help these children because they are our future,” she said. “And they just need support. They just need guidance.”

Nate Balis, who works on juvenile justice reforms at the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, said Hawaii’s example could help shift the national mentality away from imprisoning troubled youth. The key, he said, is to focus on reducing the probationary population and creating alternative pathways for young people with job training and other development programs.

“We have to do both,” Balis said.

Patterson, who recently applied for a grant that would partially fund an on-campus mental health program for minors, said Hawaii provided the proof.

“We’re not saying we solved a social problem,” Patterson said. “We say the treatment and the system we have in place for care is working.”

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