Saturday, April 5, 2008

"You guys are looking at miracles"

On Saturday morning, the State Capitol was quiet, except for a small conference room where dozens of former prison inmates and ex-offenders gathered for a chance to tell their story. The Senate Committee on Public Safety and the House Committee on Public Safety and Military Affairs held a joint information briefing entitled, "Life on the Outside", intended to draw from the personal experience of those who have been in prison and what it was like to re-enter society.

When I entered the conference room, the briefing had already been in session for over 2 hours. A news cameraman who had gotten his shots and was about to leave commented, "That was some of the most amazing testimony I've heard here." Indeed, one by one, Rep. Cindy Evans, and Senators Will Espero, Clarence Nishihara and Norman Sakamoto, listened to stories, sometimes heart-wrenching, of what it's really like, what is needed, where we succeed, where we fail, and what should be done.

And, as a man named Eddie pointed out, "You guys are looking at miracles. The fact that I am sitting here talking to you, and that these people are in this room telling their stories, is a miracle. All the people that didn't make it aren't here."


Franklin said, "A hardened criminal is easier to change than a dope addict. The addict will always do what he needs to do in order to feed his habit. You can change a hardened criminal."

James said, "We are dealing with a disease - drug addiction. We need more support for treatment rather than locking people up. Treatment is money well spent. We need an alternative to warehousing people."

John said, "When I was in Halawa, they diagnosed me as depressed. Yeah, I just got sent to prison, of course I'm depressed. When I got out, I wasn't depressed. Regardless of the time of the sentence, they are all going to come out at some point, and they all need treatment.

Peter said, "There is a lack of common sense and accountability in the system. I'm trying to help a man who was released from prison without his medication. He's bi-polar. How is he going to survive without his medication? That is stupid and cruel. People in the business community are willing to help, from the inside out. Help the system, not just the people."
John said, "You need to give them something to do. An idle mind is the devil's workshop."

Sam said, "I was in and out since I was 11 years old. One day a guard made a comment that I would be back in 6 months. That hurt my soul, and it made me determined to change. I now help with a mentorship program. We need to show inmates that they have potential . They have pressures - they need to find a job, they need to support their children - but how are they going to find a job with a criminal record? Some guys don't want to do religion. Some guys don't want to do AA. You have to educate yourself from the inside out. It takes time, like learning to walk again.

Marvin said, "For most of the youth, their parents were incarcerated, or on drugs, or alcoholics. The kids want to be like their parents. Or, they think, if my father doesn't care, why should I? When I was in prison, I realized that I needed to change, and that I wanted to be a re-builder, not a destroyer. We need to uplift our community.
Charles said, "I'm a volunteer at OCCC. I also run a ministry. But one of the rules is that if I'm going to be a volunteer, I can't have any contact with the inmates once they get out of prison. That's crazy. How can we help these people to re-integrate?

Lorraine said, "Sometimes, what people need is an 'enlightened witness'. You can't take away the trauma, but you can help them to help themselves and manage their overwhelm."

Gary said, "Once a con, always a con. That's how society sees prisoners. Gang involvement in Hawaii is up 20% and it's coming from inside the prisons.

Edward said, "I was living lawless. The most important thing for me when I came out was to live with a sense of order. That's more important than money."

Jackson said, "The mainland prisons don't care about the Hawaii people. Why are you giving them money? It's only about the money for them."

Ben said, "I have radio show on KAIM called Gospel Connection. We are working with WCCC to provide solar powered radios for the women inmates. They can check out the transistors from the chaplain just like a library book. There are two stations; one is for bible teaching and the other is Christian music."

Tommy said, "There are 250,000 people on probation statewide. Seven out of ten will end up being re-sentenced."

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