November 23, 2011

Valley & State

Eloy prison's Hawaiian population takes part in harvest ceremony

Nov. 16, 2011 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

It was still dark when they began to chant toward the eastern horizon, nearly 100 voices calling to the sun.

"E ala e, ka lai i ka hikina; i ka moana, ka moana hou hounu; pi'i ka lewa, ka lewa nu'u."

"Awake," they say in Hawaiian, "and rise from the ocean into the highest heavens."

Their rhythmic beckoning continues until the sun climbs above the mountains, illuminating the barbed fencing that helps to keep them confined.

The CCA Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy is home to about 1,840 inmates, most of whom -- 77 percent -- are of Polynesian descent. Under a recently renewed contract, Corrections Corporation of America will continue to house Hawaii Department of Public Safety inmates at Saguaro through 2014.

Eloy's desert landscape couldn't be more different from home, but it's where some inmates are connecting with their cultural roots for the first time.

Last week, two spiritual advisers traveled to Eloy from the islands to oversee ceremonies for the beginning of the Makahiki season of harvest. Ka'iana Haili and Kini Kaleilani Burke, contract workers with Hawaii's DPS, have guided stateside inmate populations in cultural tradition for a decade.

Makahiki celebrates Lono, god of rain and fertility, with offerings and a series of rituals. It is a time of peace and renewal, Haili tells the inmates, a time to "plant the seed of knowledge in yourself."

"A lot of these guys came out of foster homes, a lot of these guys were adjudicated at a young age in youth courts," Haili said. "They're just repeat offenders because they don't know any other lifestyle. This is the beginning of changing them back to what their culture is and what it means to be Hawaiian, to be part of an indigenous group that celebrates nature and celebrates life."

After the sun chant, inmates filed into a recreation room to change into ceremonial clothing of brightly patterned skirt-wraps and kehei, a sheath resembling a toga that wards off bad energy. Leis made of kukui nuts were placed around necks for enlightenment, and bracelets and headbands made of woven ti leaves were worn to keep one's personal power, or mana, intact.

Developing cultural pride and connectivity enhances inmates' rehabilitation and helps to prepare them for a return to society, according to Saguaro warden Todd Thomas.

"Sooner or later, 85 percent of these guys are going home," Thomas said. "We need to get them skills and help them make good, moral-based decisions."

Thomas knows the exposure helps inmates stay out of trouble behind bars. In his previous job as warden of Coffee County Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Georgia, Thomas implemented a 360-bed faith-based housing area and began to compare inmates' behavior with that of their counterparts.

Within a year, the faith-based pod had a "65 percent reduction in fights, fussin' the staff, write- ups, discipline reports, across the board," Thomas said. "I thought 'Hey, everywhere I go, I want this.' "

A similar program was under way at Saguaro before Thomas became warden in 2008.

Whether inmates take religious principles with them when they leave is up for debate.

Speaking in the Hawaiian tongue and practicing religious traditions helps inmate Alan Kekahuna, 41, to "feel like I am free, like I am not institutionalized," although he says he needs to stay in prison for now. "I get into trouble in Hawaii," he said.

Kekahuna was released from Saguaro in June 2010 but returned within months for a parole violation. He was originally convicted of burglary and theft, and is set for release in 2013.

His religious belief is strong, he said, but that's not enough.

"Choices and decisions you make outside are what really will keep us out of trouble," Kekahuna said. "It's not about what we do in here that's going to change us. It's choices and decisions that we make on the outside that determine my fate, my destination, my destiny."

Once dressed, the inmates headed back outside to make offerings of coconut, taro, fish, pig, sweet potato, bananas and other items. A counter-clockwise procession followed the outline of a basketball court as if it were an island back home.

"They are prisoners, but they are still our people," Burke said. "We want to make sure that they stick this into their heart and their mind so they can practice, a continuation of knowing who we are and what we're doing."