A recent panel on prison conditions featured two state representatives, an adviser to Gov. Doug Ducey, a pair of former prisoners, the director of inmate programs at the Arizona Department of Corrections – and a beauty queen.
Laetitia Hua is using her year-long reign as Miss Maricopa County to advocate for changes to the criminal justice system, channeling her law studies and the spirit of Victorian-era reformer Dorothea Dix as she meets with lawmakers, talks to families and highlights prison issues.
How did you first get interested in criminal justice issues?
I had studied criminal justice issues while I was studying abroad. I was in law school overseas in Scotland, so I specialized in criminology and studied the way European prisons were approaching rehabilitation and reform. I think a lot of other countries have dealt with what we are dealing with now, so it was interesting to look at what they did to resolve this.
How did what you saw in Scotland and other European prisons compare to what we’re seeing here in Arizona?
There have been concerns of prisons not being effective. A lot of countries have conducted in-depth research about how their prison systems were essentially failing people. People were coming out of prisons hardened and worse [off] and there was a high recidivism rate. A lot of countries have asked researchers to come in and essentially try to solve this issue. They’ve taken a more rehabilitative approach. They’ve looked at how recidivism could be curbed by addressing the root cause of crime – not just locking people up and then having them released at their worst because a lot of time prison actually perpetuates crime and criminal behavior.
I think that’s one of the things that kind of makes me puzzled about our prison system – the lack of transparency and it seems that it’s so closed-off. Obviously, people can’t just go and do research in prison from what I understand. I feel like if they would open them to the public more and invite community organizations and families to help prisoners feel more connected to society, I think that would be a first step forward.
So, in Europe, they can actually have academic researchers in prisons doing real research?
Yeah. My professor did that at one point, and I know that in some countries they’re really proactive about inviting families to come to be with the citizens who are incarcerated. And they have group activities and things like that that are more like they’re involving the community in this process.
You have your law degree and recently passed the bar in New York. What’s the next step? Do you want to be a lawyer working on criminal justice issues?
I would love to. I’m also considering going into policy full-time. I was actually just in New York for an interview for a public defender position. I don’t know what I want to do yet. I have the next two or three weeks to make a decision.
Doing this advocacy work here, have you run into issues where people say, “Oh, you’re just a beauty queen. Why are you talking to me about criminal justice?”
I think there’s a lot of stereotypes about pageantry and people who are in it. What’s interesting is being able to break certain stereotypes. A lot of the time I want to come at this from my background as a lawyer as opposed to a beauty queen. But I think pageantry has evolved. The Miss America organization recently took out the swimsuit competition and talked about wanting to be a scholarship organization. I know they have a long ways to go to change their image, and as a feminist and someone who wants to empower women, I think it’s a good thing to have a more multidimensional view of women. I can be a model or beauty queen and also advocate for serious issues, and I just hope women can be portrayed in a more multidimensional way.
Have you seen any big wins or signs of progress?
One thing that really did surprise me is how much this is a bipartisan issue. People from both sides of the aisle agree with each other that we need change, so that is a huge win. People just have different ideas on how to move forward – whether we need dramatic change or incremental change. Either way, it’s a win that people on both sides are seeing how we need to change our prison system and how past policies of being tough on crime have not been working.
Is there a story you’ve heard that’s really stuck with you?
When I was visiting a women’s prison in Perryville, this woman was talking about being released with $3 in her pocket and being expected to readjust to society with no resources [and] to just make it. That’s a story that’s stuck with me in terms of what’s wrong. And the death of Marcia Powell stuck with me. I think about her every single day, ever since I heard the story of her being caged outside and just having people watch her die like that.
I saw somewhere that you cited Dorothea Dix as an inspiration. Why do you look up to her so much?
She’s just a woman so beyond her time. She was one of the first women to advocate for this issue, who saw the way prisons were treating people with mental illness and how wrong that was. She didn’t expect compensation. There was not really a job for a criminal justice advocate at the time. She just did it, and she was able to make an impact on an international scale. I first learned about her in AP U.S. history, and now I get to do a little bit of her work – just 1% of it – and I’m proud of that.