Native Hawaiians are disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system.
In 2019, 40% of women incarcerated in Hawaiʻi were Native Hawaiian – although they represented just 21% of the general population. Data demonstrate that these criminal justice disproportionalities accelerate at each stage of the criminal justice system with Native Hawaiians more likely to be sentenced to prison, more likely to receive longer prison sentences and probation terms, and more likely to have their parole revoked.
When we attempt to understand who these Native Hawaiian women are and the life experiences they have had in common, we see some general trends: approximately 60% reported childhood and sexual victimization; 80% experienced violence in their lives; 95% had a history of substance abuse; 33% had a history of mental health problems, and; 60% have at least one child.
OHA, along with many community partners, agencies and individuals, is involved in addressing the needs of these women. Recent research and work in the field of trauma-informed care by CEO and attorney Toni Bissen of the Puʻa Foundation and Mark Patterson, warden of the Womenʻs Community Correction Center on Oʻahu, is very promising.
Their work on behalf of incarcerated Native Hawaiian women is predicated on understanding that violence, and the resulting trauma it causes, is pervasive in our society and that, for many Native Hawaiian women in prison suffering from substance abuse and mental health problems, it is a coping mechanism in response to unresolved trauma. They also recognize that trauma caused by other factors has a similar effect and that helping to rehabilitate and heal these women must first begin with establishing safe and nurturing conditions to allow this work to progress.
This raises a central question: What is trauma? Trauma occurs when an external threat overwhelms a person’s coping resources. What events may be trauma-inducing, and the depth of the wounds they may cause, are unique to each individual. Trauma often results as a response to psychological or emotional distress, and it may affect a woman’s present and future relationships, her physical and mental health, and her ability to make positive choices and safely navigate her way through the world.
Rather than focusing on treating symptoms, trauma-informed care is a philosophy for reorganizing the manner of care to meet the unique needs of survivors and to avoid their re-traumatization. It stresses resilience, self-care, and healing. All participants are educated about trauma and its consequences and are focused on making the environment more healing and less re-traumatizing for everyone involved.
Hawaiian scholars, policy experts, and researchers familiar with trauma-informed care have considered the history of Hawaiʻi and have concluded that the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the United States in 1893 and the ensuing economic, political, and social changes was a historically traumatic event for many Hawaiians. In their view, healing and reconciliation for these Native Hawaiians will not occur until these issues are addressed by the United States.
As a Native Hawaiian woman, I am so very fortunate. I grew up with an extended ʻohana who loved me, who instilled and gave me hope, and who, through their stern yet nurturing ways, gave me the confidence to know that I could overcome the challenges and losses which inevitably would come my way.
My upbringing made me resilient, and despite the inevitable sorrows of life, I was never traumatized. We as a community have a responsibility to these incarcerated Native Hawaiian women who have been overwhelmed and traumatized by the history and circumstances of their lives to mālama kekahi i kekahi so that they may heal.