Cultivating a Culture of Rehabilitation in Hawaiʻi Prisons

Mar 21, 2018

Inmates at Wai'awa Correctional Facility find a sense of belonging in the chants and rituals of the ancient Hawaiian Makahiki celebration.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

For a few hours this week, inmates at Waiʻawa Correctional Facility stepped away from prison life. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi was there and has this story.

Under the watchful eye of prison guards, two dozen inmates at the Waiʻawa Correcitonal Facility gather on an open grassy field overlooking Pearl City to celebrate the ancient Hawaiian tradtion of makahiki.

Tonogan (far left) leads two dozen of his fellow inmates in a traditional Hawaiian dance called hula 'aiha'a.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“I think it's a beautiful experience. It's wonderful,” says inmate Jeremiah James Tonogan.

Tonogan spent the past year and a half at this minimum-security prison.

“Being able to show the community, people coming in that even though we may be incarcerated right now, that there are people in here getting in touch with their spiritual selves,” says Tonogan, “Being able to better themselves. Us as fathers, sons, you know uncles, cousins.”

Inmates clap as they greet the dawning with the traditional Hawaiian chant E Ala.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Barefoot and shirtless, the men recite ancient Hawaiian chants and perform rituals seeking gratitude, forgiveness, and protection.

Makahiki has been a tradition for Oʻahu inmates for 12 years now. The observance of makahiki in prison was a result of a 2004 freedom-of-religion lawsuit filed by 33 native Hawaiian inmates serving time in Oklahoma. Kahu Kaleo Patterson, President of the Native Hawaiian Church, has been there since the beginning.

“The facilities have really come a long way from when we first started,” says Patterson, “We work with about 50 guys at both Waiʻawa and Halawa. And it's really about just supporting the man as they're trying to go through rehabilitation, restoration.”

Makahiki is the ancient Hawaiian celebration of the harvest. Offerings of fish and produce are placed on an altar for the Hawaiian God Lono.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Kahu Patterson offers inmates classes on Hawaiian culture, history and language. He also coordinates three events a year related to Makahiki.

“This program is viewed as that kind of therapeutic effort,” says Patterson, “Culture-based, language, self-identity is very important. So the chants, the songs, the ʻaihaʻa, the ʻawa ceremony are very important, significant for these guys.”

The program provides inmates a sense of belonging, and not only for native Hawaiians. Inmate Isaac Viegas is more than 3,000 miles away from his home in El Paso, Texas.

“I'm a second-generation Mexican-American and I feel really accepted by the Hawaiian community,” says Viegas, “I look forward to doing this on the outside learning about the Hawaiian culture and about the Mexican culture as well.”

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

65-year-old Charles Mailo has been in and out of prison for two decades. He learned chants at Hālawa years ago, and has been practicing for today’s ceremony.

“What's good about having this cultural grounding in a place especially of incarceration is that it gives all the brothers something to relate to that's on a good level and a positive note,” says Mailo, “Because inside here we have a lot of negativity.”

As for Tonogan, he’s clocking out of Waiʻawa in a month or so. With Kahu Pattersonʻs help, he plans to continue his cultural and spiritual journey by joining a hālau when he gets out.

“So this is what I look forward to,” says Tonogan, “This is part of my culture. This is part of me. This is who I am. This is who my kids are. And I gotta be able to bring this with me.  Gotta be able to keep this foundation strong.”