Ka Wai Ola

By ‘Umi Perkins

Native Hawaiian filmmaker Ciara Lacey has produced a remarkable record of some of those who struggle among us. Prisoners are often ignored and forgotten – “locked up” – the point of which is to get them off the street. Incarceration rates are so high, in fact, that we forget that many of these people do eventually become reintegrated in society, with very mixed results.

Seen historically, it is worth noting that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over two million prisoners. It has also taken the unprecedented step of detaining these men (it is mostly men, but women’s incarceration rates have also skyrocketed) in for-profit prisons. The prison in the film, Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, was specifically built to hold Hawaiʻi prisoners, among whom at least forty percent are Native Hawaiian.

Out of State focuses on three men, “Hale,” Kalani, and David Kahalewai, and over the course of about two years, follows their fortunes. One is convicted of murder and remains in maximum security as he has 120-year sentence, of which 45 are mandatory. He functions as the kumu in the Arizona prison, teaching hula, “ai ha‘a” and language. A second seems to get his life on track after 15 years in prison, with the help of family and a new beginning. The third ends up in a kind of purgatory.

These disparate outcomes raise a number of questions: After controlling their every move for decades, how well is the system tracking these men after they reenter society? Does anyone monitor or, for that matter, care about those who remain part of our Hawaiian communities? Are we so caught up in the struggle of daily survival in Hawaiʻi that we can’t think about the plight of our fellow members of the lāhui? This third question is especially relevant since it is precisely Hawaiian culture that seems to get these men on track and reduce recidivism – “messing up” as they call it. As David Kahalewai says while thumbing through a coffee table book on Hawaiian culture in his prison cell, “the Hawaiians were a beautiful people, they still are.” He counsels a young, presumably part-Hawaiian man in Wai‘anae who finds escape from his pain only in alcohol. The man weeps as he contemplates the choice between this escape and the straight and narrow cultural path Kahalewai offers.

In the film, one can see on the face of Kahalewai, in particular, the internal struggle that many Hawaiian men go through on a daily basis with the choices they face. Pay rent or child support? Fast (read: illegal) money in Waikīkī or the honest drudgery of a low-level job? One man has trouble thinking of any place outside of prison as home. It is these questions raised by the film that make it so provocative. Out of State does not avoid the issue of choices, nor does it make apologies for the incarcerated. In contrast, Lacey unflinchingly confronts the issue of choice and shows that none of us make it alone.