Inside Hālawa: Healing through culture

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Nestled deep in Hālawa Valley, past the Menehune Water Company and the Pepsi Bottling Group; near acres of hillside which have been excavated to harvest rock and rubble for cement; neighboring an ancient heiau for birthing, which nearly became the site of a major federal highway, lies a sprawling concrete building encircled by barbed wire. “Hālawa,” as it’s normally called by locals, or officially, the Hālawa Correctional Facility, is the largest prison in the State’s correctional system. Hālawa is three years younger than the State of Hawaii; and with 740 inmates, it’s more populous than the graduating class at Farrington, O‘ahu’s largest high school.

The State Department of Public Safety, the state office responsible now for Hālawa (it was first started as a City & County of Honolulu facility), has a website with 360-degree panoramic videos of the prison’s interior. But the videos lack the most important element of the prison: the people. They are nowhere to be seen on the state’s website; neither are their striped uniforms, some featuring black stripes, others with thick green stripes. The men and women at Hālawa are all dressed uncannily like Prince Kūhiō, rendered in a photo after the failed rebellion against the Republic of Hawaii in 1895. His stripes run top-to-bottom; he has a matching pāpale and nice leather shoes; and he has his famous handlebar mustache, the sign of a 19th-century cosmopolitan gentleman. Mustaches are less common at Hālawa, replaced frequently with homemade kākau, and the stripes at Hālawa run parallel to the ground. Yet these are nonetheless Hawaiians incarcerated by the hundreds.

Unlike Kūhiō and his comrades from the 1895 Rebellion, our contemporaries in Hālawa Correctional Facility have been separated from our mother tongue and history by decades of miseducation. It might seem unlikely, then, that the prisons are now sites of linguistic and cultural rebirth. The film “Out of State” documents this process at Saguaro, the remote Arizona prison where 1,440 Hawaiian men have been sent. And at Hālawa, OHA is supporting educational classes by Hinaleimoana Wong to reconnect Native Hawaiians to their cultural patrimony.

“Everything that we do includes language, Hawaiian language terminology. And we discuss historical events; other things of significance in our culture, cultural practices, cultural concepts, our themes, understandings. There are other offerings to the inmates, for example, the Makahiki program. The goal of my class is to help them understand how culture will not only ground them in what they do now and what they do moving forward, but how it will help sustain them, once they get out.

Wong has 20 students enrolled. Attendance depends on other obligations that the inmates might have — work lines, for example. Or if an inmate commits an infraction of a prison rule, they may be put in “The Shoe,” — the “Special Holding Area.”

“That could have been for anything,” Wong says.

Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu teaches a Hawaiian culture class at Hālawa Prison. – Photos: Jason Lees

In the classroom, students open the class with protocol. They chant to request entrance, and Kumu Hina responds. They then proceed with the marrow of the morning: pule, oli, and discussion of what lessons can be gleaned from the texts, both ancient and contemporary.

“It doesn’t matter if you are kanaka, kama‘aina or malihini. The capacity for us to contribute in a way that is becoming and that is befitting and appropriate for kanaka, that potential is held by all,” Wong said.

…you knew their answers were truthful, no matter how hard the question. I would always comment on how I knew they were a student of Kumu Hina, and they were proud to be recognized. She is a very special asset in the prison. I am proud of her and her work.”

— Annelle Amaral, member of the Hawai‘i Parolling Authority

Several inmates spoke to the impact of the class:

“What I’d like to leave behind is this prison mentality of putting on a facade, trying to be something that system made me to be, when in actuality we all family. We’re all related to one another. We Hawaiians, we came from one root, and what the system put on top of us is everything is mine mine mine, when in actuality it belongs to akua. We are here to just mālama. Since we cannot mālama certain things, we need to learn how to mālama each other.”

“A lesson I learned from this class is to respect myself and keep my head up … When I come in here, I feel the change … we learn to give respect…”

“My knowledge of knowing who I am as a person, as being Hawaiian, being kanaka, being of this ‘āina, I just feel proud. [In class] I’m learning how to speak…”