It wasn’t denial that kept Renee Rivera from regaining control of her life.

She had a substance-abuse problem, a big one, and she knew it. 

Rivera, director of He Hoomaka Houana O Puna, a recently launched nonprofit organization that assists incarcerated women with reentry to the community, was one of several community activists who spoke out about the need for sentencing reform, more humane treatment of people who are incarcerated, and greater support for those re-entering the community at large.

What You Need To Know

  • The legislature is considering several bills aimed at easing reentry for people who are incarcerated, including a package of bills developed by the Women’s Caucus

  • Advocates say Hawaii's cash bail system further punishes those who do not have money for bail

  • Of 321 parole revocations between July 2019 and June 2020, not one was for a new violation

  • Innovative reentry programs in Hawaii focus on cultural reconnection and other essential support services

The rally was organized by Hui Hoiwai, an informal working group made up of representatives from the ACLU of Hawaii, Men of PA’A, Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction and other community groups engaged in issues related to the rehabilitation and support of incarcerated people.

In this session, the legislature is considering several bills aimed at easing reentry for people who are incarcerated, including a package of bills developed by the Women’s Caucus.

Rivera, 42, smoked her first joint at 12, graduated to cocaine, then meth, then heroin. Drugs were the thread that, at first, promised to suture tight the deep traumas of her childhood. Before long, they became the thickening through line that ran from wayward adolescence and abandoned schooling to run-ins with the law, incarcerations, and a deeply troubled motherhood that resulted in the removal of her three children.

But even after she got clean and sober 15 years ago, Rivera was still stuck in a loop of offense, arrest and incarceration. It turned out drugs were only part of the problem, a single thread within a weave that also included undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and bi-polar disorder. Until she received that dual diagnosis of addiction and mental illness seven years ago, there was little Rivera could do to even begin to extricate herself from a system that puts greater emphasis on punishment and control than on treatment and rehabilitation.

With proper treatment, including inpatient care at the Hawaii State Hospital, and largely by her own determination, Rivera set out to get the help she needed to prove herself worthy of reuniting with her children. 

Through a program for Native Hawaiian female inmates, Rivera earned a GED, which enabled her to attend Hawaii Community College and the University of Hawaii-Hilo. This spring, she will complete a master’s degree in social work from UH Manoa, where she carries an overall 3.8 grade point average.

Other programs provided mental health, social and other support services — as long as she had the wherewithal to find them and connect.

So while Rivera is immensely grateful for the support she received — “I wouldn’t have the life I have without them” — she worries other incarcerated women won’t be able to navigate their own path forward without meaningful prison reform and a commitment by the state to ensure that incarcerated people have the resources they need to become productive members of the communities to which they return.

Jen Brown, associate director of the Hawaii Innocence Project and co-founder of the Beyond Guilt Hawaii Clinic, shared personal insight into the plight of those who do not receive reentry support.

“Just over 10 months ago, I lost my dad,” she said. “He had just been released from jail without any services — nothing to help his mental health disability, or help with his substance abuse disorder, or help him get the medication he needed. He was just released without any support.”

He was found shortly after unconscious and alone on a beach.

Brown said her father had been in and out of prison her entire life but had never received reentry support. 

“Nobody gave him help for his disabilities,” she said. “Instead, he was repeatedly criminalized for being mentally ill, criminalized for having substance abuse disorder, criminalized for being poor and houseless.

“If he had only received services from organization like those here when he was first incarcerated, when I was still a young child, maybe then he would still be with us today living a full rich life,” she said.

At Monday’s rally, several speakers addressed the need for more reasonable sentencing for reasons rooted in — or exacerbated by — racial and socio-economic inequities.

“The default should not be to throw people in jail or prison for poverty offenses or technical violations,” said Monica Espitia, ACLU Hawaii’s Smart Justice campaign director. “We believe smart justice is divesting from systems that multiply harm and investing in evidence-based solutions that will make us all safer.”

Espitia said taxpayers pay $80 million each year to re-incarcerate people for technical parole and probation violations. Of 321 parole revocations between July 2019 and June 2020, not one was a new violation, she said. 

“We are spending millions and millions of dollars to house and harm more people who could and should be home,” Espitia said. 

Nikoa Leverenz, Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center’s grants, development and policy manager, noted many ways in which Hawaii’s legal system perpetuates social disparities and works against the goal of rehabilitation, including “Draconian” drug possession laws that disproportionately affect Native Hawaiians, a cash bail system that “continues to criminalize poverty,” and a probation system that has the highest average term (nearly 5 years) in the nation.

ACLU Hawaii policy director Carrie Ann Shirota pointed to reformation of the local juvenile justice system as a positive model of de-carceration that resulted in what she called a system that “focuses on trauma-informed care and promoting health and wellness, not only of the youth, but their ohana, with the support of the community.”

“Instead of being warehoused and subjected to further despair, violence and trauma, we must build holistic health care and meaningful rehabilitation opportunities for people to transform their lives and return home to their communities, to their families,” she said.

Iopa Maunakea, executive director of Men of PAA (Positive Action Alliance and also the Hawaiian word for “firm”), said he and his organization have been meeting with legislators to support legislation that provides for seamless transitions from incarceration to civic life. 

He said reentry is a continuous process of recovery, restoration and reconciliation.

“When the kane (men) get good, his family gets better,” Maunakea said. “When the family gets better, who benefits from that is the community, because now you get one less family raising havoc.”

Maunakea said integrating the person’s native culture into this process, as he does with Men of PAA, is key to making sure an incarcerated person’s life beyond prison is positive, meaningful and sustainable. 

Rivera is doing her own part. Just this year, she established He Hoomaka Houana O Puna to help provide essential services to women reentering the community, from getting identification cards to accessing necessary medical care. Women will also have an opportunity to work in a loi kalo, connecting their culture via real cultivation. The organization has secured an office, and later this year, it will open a shelter for clients in need of transitional housing.