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Decolonizing Hawaii's Correctional System by Addressing Native Hawaiian Wellness.

Updated on October 7, 2019
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Anna Ramos is an Author and Educator advocating for the decolonization of Hawaii's Criminal Justice System.

The Ripple Effect

My first conversation with Uncle Joe Tassill began with the native tradition of sharing the story of his name, “Ili’ilipuna.” His “Tutu” (grandmother) said his life would be about recognizing when he is the messenger or the message. He said, “it's like when you drop a little pebble (ili’ili) in the water, what happens next?” “It ripples until it finally hits land and makes its way back to where it came from.”

The next thing Uncle Joe shared was about a school for Native Hawaiian youth who were struggling in the public school system. Back in 1974 he and a few other Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) were able to get funding from Kamehameha Schools to pilot the school located near Hōnaunau Bay on Hawai'i island. This cultural-based school called Hale o Ho’oponopono, was a pu’uhonua (safe pace) for Native Hawaiian students to heal and reconnect with the environment, elements, and cultural practices until it closed in 1984.

Reconstruction of Hale o Ho'oponopono. Photo: Barry Fackler (April 23, 2017).
Reconstruction of Hale o Ho'oponopono. Photo: Barry Fackler (April 23, 2017).

The Depths of Disparity

Three decades later, Uncle Joe championed the passage of Act 117, Hawaii Session Laws of 2012. He said, "in 2011, I was interested in the high cost of incarceration with very little or no rehabilitation. As a result, I drafted a resolution, took it to the Hawaiian Civic Club at their annual convention and got their support." The law was also supported by legislators who acted on the findings of a study conducted by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) in 2010 that reported on the “Disparate Treatment of Native Hawaiians in the Criminal Justice System.”

Then, pursuant to Act 170, the Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force submitted a report to the 2012 Legislature detailing recommendations for reducing the number of Native Hawaiians in correctional facilities, especially those living out-of-state in privately owned and contracted prisons. By the time Act 117 became law, the groundwork for addressing the mass incarceration of Native Hawaiians had been laid.


Native Hawaiian pa'ahao kane participating in sunrise service at Saguaro Correctional Center in Elroy Arizona. October 9, 2011. Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic.
Native Hawaiian pa'ahao kane participating in sunrise service at Saguaro Correctional Center in Elroy Arizona. October 9, 2011. Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic. | Source

The Hope of Pu'uhonua

Act 117 directed the Department of Public Safety (DPS), Ohana Ho'opakele, and other restorative justice groups to work on an implementation plan. Despite attempts by the former interim Director, Ted Sakai, the DPS annual report to the 2013 Legislature concluded that no plans were developed. It wasn’t until June of 2015 when Governor David Ige took office that Uncle Joe had the support of the Governor's office to begin fleshing out an implementation plan for Act 117. Uncle Joe was happy to step down from his next term as a Hawaiian Homes Commissioner because in Pu'uhonua he would have a chance to help all people of Hawai'i. He said, "because of our cultural practice of keiki o ka 'aina (children of the land), you may not be of the blood but if you are of the birthright, you are a Hawaiian too!"

On July 16, 2015, Uncle Joe convened his first advisory group meeting, including DPS administrators, in the chambers of the Governor’s office to hear considerations, recommendations, and plans to implement Pu'uhonua as an alternative system. A Pu'uhonua system would not only scrutinize the high cost of rehabilitating inmates but also begin the more important and long term work of addressing the chronic unresolved grief related to the historical trauma that Native Hawaiians continue to express through the social ills leading to their incarceration, their over-representation, the overcrowding, and the revolving door of recidivism we are now facing in the current criminal justice system.

Uncle Joe and Gov. David Ige with members of Holomua Pu'uhonua Advisory Group (back row: Momi & DeMont Conner, Kukuna Yoshimoto, Stephen Morse, Anna Ramos, Vernon Viernes) Photo: Uncle Joe Tassill, December 11, 2015.
Uncle Joe and Gov. David Ige with members of Holomua Pu'uhonua Advisory Group (back row: Momi & DeMont Conner, Kukuna Yoshimoto, Stephen Morse, Anna Ramos, Vernon Viernes) Photo: Uncle Joe Tassill, December 11, 2015.

A System of Cultural Practice

At the end of the two-hour meeting, the group reported the following considerations in a briefing note to the Governor.

  • A program is a program; a system is a system. Pu`uhonua is a system within a system. We cannot impose the former upon the present. We are not here to fix what is broken, but rather, create a better more preferred condition. There are inputs and outputs if we apply the concepts. The problem is how we will define a cultural program within this system. Pu`uhonua can fill in the process while the Public Safety Department (PSD) moves towards a more integrated system.
  • Our present system is one of accounting; Pu`uhonua is a system of accountability. An internal shift needs to occur—counting numbers, yet holding accountable. There is a misalignment that needs balancing.
  • Pu`uhonua can be tailored to fit each facility. A big consideration is that security guards will need to become more kako`o (serving), having no problem with transforming behavior. Alaka`i—shift from being a guard to being a teacher, leader. I ka nana no a 'Ike—by observing, one learns. There will be much training to consider.
  • Pu`uhonua is conceptual. We need to deformalize it with the individual and growth problems. We don’t want another system that will enable the manipulating and maneuvering found in traditional corrections. Establish the jurisdiction of each moku specific to the individual and growth. Then the community can provide wrap-around services.
  • A critical adjustment to sentencing is time. Pu`uhonua does not prescribe an exchange of time but presumes readiness to change. There is no time prescribed for this to happen. It is step by step. It asks the question, “are you ready for the next step?” Individually and collectively.
  • Pu`uhonua must be perceived as a motivation to restoration, not a condition of parole (release). It must be strictly voluntary and tough with first-time consequences. No room for failure, only successes. How do we get people motivated? Making it mandatory will only encourage manipulation to only get where they want to go. Manipulation is a sickness. We must institute a brother’s keeper mentality—if one fails, we all fail.

Pu'uhonua System Framework and Accountability Plan. Created October 14, 2015, Holomua Pu'uhonua Advisory Group.
Pu'uhonua System Framework and Accountability Plan. Created October 14, 2015, Holomua Pu'uhonua Advisory Group.

A Hawaiian Cultural Concept

The task of reforming Hawaii's correctional system is overtly linked to the historical trauma, chronic grief, and continued re-wounding that Native Hawaiians experience. It is a health and wellness issue related to the sudden and massive loss of life, land, and culture to post western contact and colonization that now spans across generations. As such, this well-documented and overly discussed issue ought to be addressed and resolved through the many science-based Hawaiian cultural remedies that reconnect Native Hawaiians to their root culture, values, principles, and practices. Otherwise, we will fail again to address this issue not only judiciously but correctly as well for the generations that follow.

In one of his last testimonies before the Hawaiian Subcommittee for the HCR85 Correctional Justice Task Force on September 30, 2016, Uncle Joe was recorded as delivering this message, "now I hope you heard that Pu'uhonua is not a place of correction more so than a place of healing. And that's where the separation between the western concept and the Hawaiian cultural concept lies, a place of healing." After three years, the message from the messenger has made its way back to where it came from--Act 117, the law addressing Native Hawaiian wellness while decolonizing Hawaii's correctional system.



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