By Diana Morita Cole, Contributor
“Mass Incarceration in the Land of the Free” was the theme of the 11th annual Minidoka Civil Liberties Symposium, which was held at the Student Union building at Boise State University in Idaho on Oct. 15-16.
Organized under the auspices of the Boise State University School for Public Policy, the two-day event featured speakers who addressed the theme of mass incarceration from many perspectives: historical, law enforcement, constitutional law, activism, jurisprudence, political science, mental health, prison reform and human rights.
During the symposium’s opening, Judy Geniac, superintendent of the Minidoka National Historical Site, reported on the current development of U.S. National Park Service sites under her mandate. These include Bainbridge Island as well as the Minidoka site.
The priorities Geniac currently manages are the National Registry to determine properties that were part of the Minidoka internment site, the Landmark Project, the development of a trail at Minidoka and construction of the Visitor Center, as well as the securement of community grants.
“We ponder our roles for the future as we manage these sites of conscience, where we incarcerated our own citizens,” Geniac reflected. “The impact of the incarceration continues — just as the impact of slavery continues.?
Tom Ikeda, the symposium’s first speaker and founder/executive director of Densho: Japanese American Legacy Project, stressed the importance of understanding the story of the Japanese American internment. “It is as relevant now as it was during World War II,” he asserted. “The current climate of division, fear and hate is reminiscent of what happened during World War II.”
The next speaker, David Adler, president of the Alturas Institute, quoted Cicero, who said that in times of crises, laws buckle. Adler went on to enumerate the many acts of injustice committed by U.S. presidents, congress and government officials that violated the U.S. Constitution.
All too often, especially in wartime, Adler told participants, governments choose to follow the Machiavellian dictum that the ends justify the means — and take actions that are not lawful or democratic.
He discussed Gen. John DeWitt’s use of gossip, rumor-mongering and racism to justify the creation of a detention program for incarcerating Japanese Americans during World War II. Ironically, Adler said, “DeWitt believed the absence of any evidence was proof Japanese Americans were plotting sabotage.”
During WWII, as it has many times before and since, Adler explained, the Supreme Court deferred to the military.
The symposium also featured speaker Michael Santos, a former felon and author of “Inside: Life Behind Bars in America.” Santos, a well-known prison consultant and academic, told participants that even after having served 26 years in prison for drug-related crimes, he is still on parole. He believes America is clinging to the belief that it is impossible to change behavior through rehabilitation. Santos also said that it will take years to change America’s flawed prison system, one that has no release mechanisms in place to re-evaluate sentences.
Judge Mark W. Bennett of the U.S. District Court in Iowa then criticized mandatory minimum sentencing for drug use, echoing Santos’ observations and stressing the need for prison reform. “Drug addiction is a medical problem, but we are criminalizing it,” Bennett said. “You can be a first-time offender and still get 360 days in prison. Judges hide behind the guidelines and fail to use their discretion.”
Satsuki Ina, who was born at Tule Lake, opened the second day of the symposium, where she told participants about her work in 2015 to assess the trauma suffered by Costa Rican refugee children by their imprisonment in Texas.
Incarcerated in privately owned prisons, the migrant children she examined were confined to living in “ice boxes,” windowless cells with concrete floors, maintained at 52-degree temperatures. These imprisoned children, along with their mothers, had been guided to Texas by “coyotes,” human traffickers who misrepresented how refugees would be received in the United States.
Ina also reported that the detained refugee children exhibited symptoms of powerlessness — insomnia, eating disorders and disobedience. Once released into the general prison-camp population, these children would cry for hours whenever their friends were taken away.
Outside the Texas private prison where she interviewed the refugee children, Ina observed that the detention site was surrounded by fracking machines, which poisoned the water table. Water from this contaminated source was the only water the migrants were given to drink.
According to Ina, private prisons receiving federal government funds have typically bypassed proper bidding procedures to procure government contracts. These prisons receive funding based on the number of refugees they detain.
On July 25, 2015, Judge Dolly M. Gee of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California ruled that the two Texas detention centers failed to meet the minimum legal requirements of the 1997 court settlement for facilities housing children.
Since Gee’s ruling and as a result of the hunger strikes undertaken by their refugee mothers, migrant children have been placed in foster care. Currently, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is monitoring refugee mothers by making them wear electronic ankle bracelets to ensure they appear in court, while safe houses run by religious organizations have been established to shelter refugees fleeing persecution and violence in Central America.
Ina explained that when refugees are finally released from prison, they are routinely given a Greyhound ticket to a bus station where it is hoped that a relative will pick them up. “Economic profit for private companies should not supersede our laws, nor determine the fate of these refugees coming to the U.S.,” Ina concluded.
Next, Rajini Srikanth, professor of English and dean of the Honors College at the University of Massachusetts, spoke on the importance of developing empathy in society as she focused on the Guantanamo Bay prison as a site of living death — a place of incarceration that purportedly exists outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. Constitution because it is located in Cuba.
Srikanth told symposium participants that almost all of the prisoners held at Guantanamo were Muslim men, turned in by bounty hunters in Afghanistan and Pakistan for suspected terrorist activity. The $5,000 bounty promised by American policy was advertised in leaflets dropped from airplanes. She explained that the American bounty program eroded the life of Muslim communities in both Afghanistan and Pakistan by empowering informants within these two societies.
Srikanth also explained that after Rasul v. Bush in 2004, the Supreme Court ruled the writ of habeas corpus applied in Guantanamo Bay prison. This landmark ruling allowed prisoners to challenge their detention. While the majority of prisoners held in Guantanamo have been released, they are unable to return home. Instead, they are being sent to places like Bosnia, where they have no family or community connections.
In addition, Srikanth reported that Guantanamo Bay prison is the result of the fierce exercise of an affronted power: a country that has suffered an attack and subsequently outsources torture, as the United States government has done in the extraordinary rendition of Maher Arar, a Syrian Canadian who was kidnapped by American authorities and tortured in Syria.
Srikanth concluded her talk by quoting the famed, Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt. Arendt believed that the refugee is the example where human rights should begin.
Karen Korematsu, executive director of the Fred Korematsu Institute, then spoke about the importance of the legal challenge undertaken by her father, Fred Korematsu, who was arrested and sentenced for his refusal to comply with Executive Order 9066 in 1942.
A federal district court in San Francisco found Korematsu guilty of refusing to comply with military orders, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 1944 on the grounds of military necessity. In 1983, Korematsu appealed his conviction.
According to Karen Korematsu, her father never gave up hope that his case would be reopened. Karen screened the documentary “Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story,” which she has shown during her educational speaking engagements across the country. She said that the reparation check given to each Japanese American wasn’t the important thing. What made it significant, according to Karen Korematsu, was that “it was the apology and recognition that a wrong was done.”
And a panel discussion featuring Kevin Kempf, director of the Idaho Department of Correction; Amber Beierle, education specialist; and Gary Raney, former Sheriff from Ada County took place, where the three speakers commented on recent improvements that have taken place in the Idaho state correctional system.
The symposium’s final speaker was Holly Yasui, director of the Minoru Yasui Tribute Project. She is the youngest daughter of civil rights activist Min Yasui, who was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2015.
Holly Yasui previewed the documentary she is co-directing titled “Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice,” which is narrated by actor George Takei. Holly Yasui also cited the work being done by Sarah Segal, a teacher at Hood River Middle School in Oregon, who is developing a living history curriculum based on the life of Min Yasui. He was, Holly Yasui explained, an American citizen who refused to obey the unconstitutional curfew orders implemented by Executive Order 9066.
The event’s moderator, Paul Y. Watanabe, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, offered concluding remarks, reflecting on his own background as the son of a “No-No” girl. He urged the symposium’s participants to stand up in memory of those who have stood up in the past to keep hope alive.
The 11th annual Minidoka Civil Liberties Symposium, sponsored by the Boise Art Museum), Idaho Statesman and the Japanese American Citizens League, was organized by the Friends of Minidoka, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Boise State University, Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning and the U.S. National Park Service.