Column: End stigma against incarceration, 1 ohana at a time

  • Originally published in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, 1/14/2020
  • By Shayna Lonoaea-Alexander

When my dad was locked up, I didn’t talk to anyone about it. His absence marked my volleyball games, first days at school, grandma’s cancer treatments, our big family Christmas Eve parties in Wahiawa and Waianae and other countless moments.

Yet my fear of being judged by my friends, neighbors and co-workers somehow outweighed my sadness. I wish I spoke up sooner. As a society, we’ve been quiet for far too long while people like my dad are filed away into cell blocks, only acknowledged as footnotes on annual reports or reduced to fearmongering statistics.

As I’ve begun to share my truth as a field organizer, people have shared their own stories with me: “Mom went away.” “I got locked up.” “My son is in Saguaro …

According to the state Department of Public Safety’s Oct. 31, 2019, end-of-month population report, 5,307 people are currently incarcerated. That means over 5,000 Hawaii families are impacted by incarceration, which affects the very fabric of our communities. But we sweep this fact under the rug.

During a recent visit to Ewa Beach, I met a returning mom and learned about her struggle reconnecting with her teenage son while also being a caregiver to her own mother, working full-time, and volunteering at homeless shelters. But doors and opportunities shut when a question was raised about her past. Her struggle ultimately affected more than just herself: also her own family, mother and children. Are communities prepared to welcome a returning worker, congregant or neighbor?

The vast majority of people behind bars do get out. The people returning to our families, schools, churches and communities from prison need to know we’re all here to welcome them back — and we want to know that they were helped while they were gone.

A depressing loop I hear from formerly incarcerated folks is how, despite serving their sentences, they still feel like they’re serving time. The shunning from employers, neighbors and friends can sound like they are not worthy of being “out.” Stigma can prevent successful reintegration of people previously incarcerated.

According to a Kent State University study, “Social stigmas placed on criminals can prevent them from recovering and rehabilitating. Feeling ashamed and rejected can inadvertently cause them to revert back to criminal behaviors.” This is happening right here in Hawaii. Our recidivism rate is around 60%.

Building more cages, locking up more people and shaming them when they’re released do not make our communities safer. We need to move away from an increasingly expensive criminal justice system that harms individuals and families. We can implement better alternatives aimed at rehabilitation.

Ho’oponopono — the practice of healing and reconciliation — should be a value we nurture in the Hawaii we love. I can’t get back time with my dad, and my grandma passed years before his release. But as system-involved people and impacted families, we can reclaim our stories and end stigma of incarceration.

Joshua Hoe, host of the podcast “Decarceration Nation,” said: “By being present, standing with dignity, and not wilting under the pressure, we change the narrative in every room we stand up in.”

We need to invest in solutions like medical and mental health wellness, community restorative justice programs, housing, education, job training and placement. Let’s stop shaming our families and neighbors into silence and tossing money at a system that is not only unjust; it is just not working. We need to focus on people, not prisons. We can fix this together.

%d bloggers like this: