Operated by CoreCivic, a corrections management corporation, Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., currently houses some 877 paʻahao (inmates) from Hawaiʻi. In the late 1990s, the Hawaiʻi Department of Public Safety began sending paʻahao from Hawaiʻi to several prisons on the continent to address overcrowding. However, since 2015, paʻahao from Hawaiʻi have been consolidated at Saguaro. - Photo: Moss.com

Hundreds of Paʻahao are Serving Their Sentences on the Continent

Native Hawaiians currently constitute 21.8% of the Hawaiʻi’s population yet comprise about 40% of the state’s inmate population. And a significant number of male inmates serve out their sentences not in Hawai’i, but at facilities in Arizona.

Beginning in the 1980s, Hawaiʻi’s prisons and jails became dangerously overcrowded due to increased poverty, the rise of the meth epidemic, and the enactment of new laws including mandatory minimal sentencing.

Due to overcrowding at Hālawa Correctional Facility (HCF) and at the Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCCC), state officials began to ship both male and female inmates to facilities on the continental United States in the late 1990s.

The general criteria that continues to be used to determine who is sent to the continent is, if the inmate will be incarcerated for longer than five years and is in good health, then they are eligible for transfer to Arizona (but would be returned to Hawaiʻi towards the end of their sentence). These include inmates convicted of felony charges ranging from first degree murder to robbery to possessing more than one ounce of meth.

This was practice was explained in a statement received from the Office of the Director of the Hawaiʻi Department of Public Safety (PSD): “Over the years Hawaiʻi’s inmate population has increased but prison space has not. If the PSD did not have the ability to send inmates to Saguaro Correctional Center, Hālawa Correctional Facility, PSD’s largest in-state facility, would be grossly overcrowded.

“Conditions created by overcrowding place the citizens and elected officials of Hawaiʻi under a cloud of liability that could threaten the autonomous control and supervision of Hālawa Correctional Facility as well as other jails and prisons throughout the state and cost the state untold millions in federal fines.”

In 2007, male inmates began to be consolidated at the Saguaro Correctional Center (SCC) in Eloy, Ariz., a prison run by CoreCivic, a corrections management corporation. Consolidation was completed in 2015 and, as of mid-November 2023, Saguaro Correctional Center (also the subject of the 2017 documentary, Out of State, by ʻŌiwi filmmaker Ciara Lacy), had a Hawaiʻi inmate population of 877.

In 2009, all female inmates were returned home to Hawaiʻi after repeated incidents of abuse in Kentucky prison facilities.

However, the return of male inmates is unlikely due to the size of the population.

According to the statement from the PSD, “Bringing more prisoners home from the mainland is something that the department would like to see happen. It is an ongoing effort that requires multiple levels of coordination with all of the agencies that contribute to the criminal justice system. That is something that will have to be worked out over a span of years.”

Mark Kawika Patterson currently serves as chairperson of the Hawaiʻi Correctional System Oversight Commission and is a passionate advocate for criminal justice reforms. During his tenure as warden of WCCC, he helped to push for more Hawaiian culture-based programs by engaging those in PSD and looking for partnerships – including with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. These included having the women transcribe Hawaiian language newspapers, engaging in Indigenous farming methods, cleaning up Ulupō Heiau, and other cultural programming.

“Learning ʻōlelo and having contact with the land transformed the women,” Patterson commented.

“Native Hawaiians are such a large demographic in the prison system, and many are coming from within and around Hawaiian homesteads. A lot of it has to do with generational poverty, untreated mental health, generational trauma, and other social determinants. Let’s be honest, the ones that go through the prison system are the marginalized. People with money are able to get around the system,” Patterson said.

Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu has taught hula and language programs at HCF and believes that the lack of access to land and the impact of colonization are factors for inmates that we need to understand.

“A capitalist society goes against the way Pacific Islander and many Asian societies operate because it stresses accumulating wealth. Your value is based on what you earn, not who you are. This also breaks down family structures and makes the environment unfriendly to our way of life,” said Wong-Kalu.

The PSD’s 2022 Annual Report shows that the availability of Hawaiian cultural programs differ from facility to facility and that there is no comprehensive statewide Hawaiian culture-based programming similar to general education programs despite the fact that Hawaiʻi has a unified integrated state-level prison and jail system.

“There cannot just be classes. It must be an integrated way of life and knowing one’s kūlana (role) and kuleana,” Wong-Kalu added.

“A major failure we have is re-entry,” Patterson notes. “We are being punitive and not rehabilitative. We need to be a puʻuhonua where we heal people and have them bring their gifts to the community.”

Patterson believes that building relationships – including with the community, the land, and the culture – are key to healing trauma, breaking generational cycles of incarceration, and staying out of the prison system.

“We really shouldn’t be sending people to Arizona because we need to have the people re-establish their relationship with the community and they can’t do that over there,” he said. “There is a sense of place that can come only from here. If we can bring back the women, we can bring back the men.”