Originally shared on Australian Broadcasting Corporation by Anna Kelsey-Sugg and Ann Arnold on July 27, 2022click here to read.

In 2021, there were 819 young people incarcerated on an average night in Australia.

Most were aged between 10 and 17 years old, 50 per cent were Indigenous and nine per cent of them were girls.

While in some states the numbers are coming down, in others – namely Queensland and the Northern Territory – they trend upwards.

It’s inspiring, then, to learn that Hawaii has achieved an impressive incarceration goal: zero girls locked up.

“Another world is possible,” tweeted US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last month when the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women broke the news.

Just how did the US state do it?

Under a pink night sky, there are silhouetted images of a group of young people standing.
What could other US states, and countries like Australia, learn from Hawaii’s incarceration experience? (Unsplash: Marcos Paixao)

‘The only state in the country that has achieved this’

Having all girls out of jail makes Hawaii a trailblazer, says criminologist and Emeritus Professor at the University of Hawaii, Meda Chesney-Lind.

“I believe we’re the only state in the country that has achieved this remarkable task,” she tells ABC RN’s Late Night Live.

It follows an impressive list of achievements for women in Hawaii, including being the first US state to offer women’s safe and legal abortion in 1970, and in 1972 the first to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, Dr Chesney-Lind says.

Not bad for a state with a total population of 1.4 million. Indeed, Hawaii’s size means it has incarceration numbers that sound small.

According to the 2020 census, over 21 per cent of Hawaii’s population is comprised of people 18 and under – around 300,000 people. About 12 years ago, the state hit the height of incarceration for girls, with roughly 30 to 40 girls imprisoned in youth facilities.

But small numbers don’t necessarily equate to small problems, Dr Chesney-Lind says.

Youth facilities “have not been safe spaces for kids”, she says.

“We’ve had scandal after scandal, especially with reference to the girls, [such as] sexual assaults of the girls.”

For some young people, returning home isn’t a safe option.

“We need to have another place for them. But we don’t need to have it be a locked environment,” Dr Chesney-Lind says.

She says historically the majority of the girls in detention in Hawaii have been incarcerated “essentially for running away from home”, often after escaping abuse.

In some states in the US, including Hawaii, running away from home is considered a “status offence” – something that becomes a law violation when it’s committed by a minor.

Running away can lead to homelessness, which in turn can lead to “committing minor offences like shoplifting”, in order to have food to eat, or “getting into dangerous circumstances [such as] juvenile prostitution to get money so that they can survive”, Dr Chesney-Lind says.

No metal doors, no locks

Dr Chesney-Lind says legislative changes pushed by the judge R. Mark Browning “really reinvented juvenile justice” in Hawaii, by making it more difficult to incarcerate young people for misdemeanours.

Judge Browning also, she notes, “brought in national experts to help the state see how costly incarceration was to the state” – something she describes as a “smart political move”.

But she attributes much of the success to Mark Kawika Patterson, the administrator of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. He worked “incredibly hard” to get the number right down, she says.

Criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind says Hawaii has a proud feminist history of early uptake of positive changes for women.(Supplied)
Prison administrator Mark Kawika Patterson worked tirelessly to prevent young girls being jailed. (Image: Ka Wai Ola/Partners in Development Foundation/Jason Lees)

Mr Patterson says for the last 20 years of his career, his guiding principle has been a therapeutic, rather than punitive, approach.

In that time he’s often been called upon by judges to incarcerate girls “for their safety”. But he’s always pushed back.

“I would say, we’re designed for public safety, we’re not designed for her [safety],” he says.

“There is another model,” he says.

Being a native Hawaiian man motivates him; he’s long wanted “to be a positive influence” for his community.

Native Hawaiians “battle for our positioning in Hawaii” and he’s sought to “learn the system and become a leader in the system to benefit our people here”.

He has worked to divert young people to community-based alternatives instead of incarceration.

The Kupa Aina farm is on repurposed correctional facility space. Here young people can learn agricultural and other skills to help set them up for life.(Image: Partners in Development Foundation)

He led the conversion of buildings formerly used to jail juveniles into less threatening and more welcoming spaces for at-risk young people. These include a homeless shelter, a residential vocational training program and a high school.

He encouraged youth services to develop programs and settings for the kids who can’t stay with their families, for example because of the risk of physical or sexual abuse at home.

Throughout, his focus has been on helping to heal and rehabilitate often traumatised young women, many of whom are Indigenous Hawaiian.

Mr Patterson offers the example of opening an assessment centre for victims of sex trafficking.

These young women would typically be incarcerated for status offences, such as truancy or use of alcohol, because of their age.

The assessment centre offered a new option.

“We pushed hard that it wasn’t going to be a secured facility,” he says. “It wasn’t going to be like a prison.”

Cells were changed to rooms, metal doors were replaced with wooden ones, and “the girls could leave if they wanted to”.

“A lot of people were saying, ‘Well, they’re going to run away’,” he says.

And initially they did.

“In the first 24 to 48 hours, 90 per cent of the girls did walk away,” he says.

But these exits were organised walkaways: there were safety plans in place, and the girls were given money and service contacts.

Within the next fortnight, 80 per cent of the girls who’d left, returned. They voluntarily sought out the therapeutic environment that had been established.

Having choice and not being held against their will led to more success in the treatment.

“They wanted to stay, they wanted to come back … [and they] would continue to come back whenever they needed help,” he says.

Rather than the damaging, stigmatising environment of a detention centre, this was a place geared towards supporting, helping and healing. Young people have responded to it well.

Mr Patterson is also working to reduce the number of young men incarcerated in Hawaii, and here too he is having success. There are now only 16 or 17 boys locked up – an 82 per cent reduction in the number of boys incarcerated 12 years ago.

But he’s not done yet.

“We’re not saying that the social issues are resolved,” Mr Patterson says. His programs will “constantly evolve” to keep seeking to address those.

But for now, he is proving that another world is possible.