Friday, October 15, 2010

_The Value of Hawai`i_ 3: a guest post by Lyz Soto

As I ran out to drive Kaia Sand & Jules Boykoff to the airport yesterday, I suggested to Lyz Soto, a Ph.D. student in our department, whose book Eulogies was published by Tinfish Press, that she guest blog the Value of Hawai`i event at high noon. Here is her post [to the left, you can see her at the right with fellow grad student, Danielle Seid]. Here goes Lyz:

The third installment of the Teach-In sessions for The Value of Hawai`i focused on issues troubling government, law and the courts, public education, University of Hawai`i, and prisons in the Hawaiian Islands. The speakers were Chad Blair (government), Mari Matsuda (public education), Neal Milner (University of Hawai`i), Kat Brady (prisons), Meda Chesney-Lind (prisons), and Melody Kapilialoha MacKenzie (law and courts). As with the last two sessions, Kuykendall, room 410, was packed to standing room only with an audience that actually listened to what the panel had to say on their subjects of expertise.

What did I get from this talk?

Each speaker was thoughtful and passionate about their topic. The Value of Hawai`i, and organized events surrounding its publishing, is not a casual event for any of these people. They are participating in this dialogue because they want to activate and see real and substantial change in our community.

My first reaction to their analysis was to feel discouraged. The status quo that they outlined has been in place for most of my life. If anything, circumstances appear to have worsened in my lifetime. No one wants to hear that, especially when it is acknowledged that most of the people in current positions of power appear to have no real desire to effect change, or at the very least a renovation of the status quo.

My second reaction was hope, triggered, bizarrely, by Kat Brady’s and Meda Chesney-Linds’ analysis of the prison system in Hawai`i. Do not get me wrong; the picture they painted was far from rose-tinted, and it touched upon the fallout of the continuing drug problem in our community, without really wrestling with it as an active component in our state’s social problems, however, time was severely limited, and their focus was the problems of the criminal system and the role incarceration is playing in Hawai`i.

The brought up Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which is a for-profit company that, in the words supplied by the company website, provides “…the design, construction, expansion and management of prisons, jails and detention facilities, as well as inmate transportation services…” The community of Hawai`i has experience with this corporation, because a number of people incarcerated in our state have been moved to CCA prisons on the continent. All involved in that decision, apparently, said that “housing” Hawai`i people in continental prisons was cheaper than keeping them at home. Please go to the Corrections Corporation of America’s website! The same language used on that site could be applied to building sewer lines. They focus on "innovation, cost effectiveness, and efficiency." I would not have guessed that this company deals exclusively in the imprisonment of people, were it not for a single paragraph that is one sentence long, in a company description that goes one for six paragraphs. Apparently, they do provide rehabilitation and education programs, but these receive far less emphasis than the fact that CCA has been mentioned in Forbes magazine as one of “America’s Best Biggest Companies”. I digress…

The hopeful reaction! This moment came when Kat Brady and Meda Chesney-Linds pointed out that there is money in the system that can be shifted to fund productive educational programs. Now back to the bad news; it is currently directed at prisons, and incarceration in Hawai`i is a growth industry. This brings me back to the language used on CCA’s website, “[the]… expansion and management of prisons…”. The predicted and desired growth of an incarcerated population is built into this company’s vocabulary, which leads me to an interesting point made by Laura Lyons during the question answer period of the session. She said that it was important to acknowledge the difference between privatization, which is the word most of us use to describe the shifting of programing from government to private sectors, and corporatization, which is a word that more accurately describes what is happening in the American prison system. CCA proudly defines itself as a for-profit corporation, thus by its very nature it will do well to place fiscal interests above the interests of the people it contains. There is nothing private about responding to the will of shareholders.

Chesney-Lind and Brady stated that the economic benefits of a state like Hawai`i using CCA’s services are fictional. It is not cheaper to send Hawai`i prisoners to continental facilities. This begs the question:

Why is the corporatization of this system so appealing to our government officials? If there is no economic benefit, where is the advantage, and perhaps more importantly, who is benefiting from these choices?

All of our mainstream economic models, including those that apply to education, health care, prisons, and government, are built on the incongruous idea that expansion and sustainability are actually synonymous, and that success must lead to more. More of what is not always clear, I have not even touched education, and I could go on for another fifty pages, so I will close with this thought; most of the machinations (I mean this in the best possible way) we employ in trying to effect change involve some element of force, and perhaps this is inevitable in a dialogue that involves people, but I like to hope there are other options. The words creative and imagination were mentioned more than once, and I think the ideas behind these words must be key components of how we approach a bureaucracy supported and sustained by systems of self-protection. If we relegate ourselves to a counter-culture reaction that promotes protest as the main, and sometimes only, catalyst to make a difference, we can never hope to transform or even modify present structures,. We must be the difference, not just in our conversations, but in how we conduct our daily lives.

Here's a longer bio of Lyz: Lyz Soto is a Ph.D. student with an emphasis on creative writing. She is also the Executive Director of Youth Speaks Hawai`i, a non-profit organization dedicated to mentoring youth in the art of Spoken Word. She has worked in construction and archaeology, and received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, and her M.Phil. in Archaeological Heritage and Museums from Cambridge University. Lyz is a performance poet, who enjoys working cross-genre in multiple media fields. Her book, Eulogies, was recently published by TinFish Press.

Tinfish editor added links.

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