The fellowship funds individuals to implement innovative projects that advance the Open Society Institute’s (OSI) efforts to reform the U.S. criminal justice system. OSI’s strategy takes aim at two overarching ills: the over-reliance on incarceration and harsh punishment, and the lack of equal justice—especially for people of color and the poor.
During the fellowship, Shirota will prepare a comprehensive research report underscoring the problem of out-of-state prisoner transfers, highlighting the over-representation of Native Hawaiians in prisons, and develop strategies to reduce the banishment of all of Hawai‘i’s prisoners. She believes that the present policy of dealing with prison overcrowding by transferring prisoners to for-profit Mainland jails is misguided.
When prisoner transfers to the Mainland began in 1995, it was introduced as a temporary solution to prison overcrowding. What began with just 300 transfers has grown by 683 percent to 2,050 in 2008. With 1,774 prisoner transfers in 2006, according to the U.S. Justice Deptartment, Hawai‘i transfers more than twice the number of inmates than any of the 13 states that carry out the practice.
She is fighting for reform of the criminal justice system.
Shirota’s passion for fairness started out as a child growing up in Ha‘ikū.
“I had an innate sense of fairness to begin with, and whatever and whenever I would raise it to my mother, she would say, ‘You know, Carrie Ann, sometimes life is unfair.’ I had a hard time accepting that. My response to my mother would be, ‘I understand that, but if I can do something to make the world a more fair place, then I’m going to do it.’”
She had her first experience with the criminal justice system as a freshman at Santa Clara College in California during a service project at the city’s juvenile detention facility.
“I walked into the juvenile hall, and I started to talk to them, and I realized that these men and women are just like me—with the same hopes and dreams and wanting to do good. But they never had the family and support and opportunities for education. I often think, but for the grace of God, I could have been on track headed for prison—if I didn’t have my family, if I didn’t have education, if I didn’t have a community that nurtured me and cared about me.”
She became the director of Maui Economic Opportunity’s Being Empowered and Safe Together (MEO BEST) prisoner reintegration program, where she worked until she was named a Soros Fellow.
She has found out that like Latinos and African Americans on the Mainland, there is a much higher percentage of Hawaiians in prison as compared to the general population. According to the U.S. Census, 23 percent of the population of Hawai‘i is Native Hawaiian or part Hawaiian, but 38 percent of men and 42 percent of women in the prison population are of Hawaiian or part Hawaiian ancestry.
Shirota concludes that the transferring of Hawai‘i’s prison population causes severe hardships, leading to disconnection from ‘ohana, culture and community resources, and the practice interferes with rehabilitation. It is very difficult on the families—particularly the children. Transferring makes it more difficult to transition back to the community, prevents normal visitation and infringes on access to courts, among other reasons. She believes the practice has to end, and she hopes a new administration will have a more enlightened stance towards this issue.