Eloy is a sweltering, dusty prison town in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It’s also home to more incarcerated Hawaiians than any other places in the U.S.—including Hawaii. It’s part of a long process of prison outsourcing that began in the 1990s. Delbert Wakinekona was one of the very first Hawaiian prisoners transferred out of state. Over 40 years, he made his way through a series of prisons, eventually landing in Eloy.
The stark change in landscape, from the islands to the desert, is just part of the shock for prisoners like him. Time and again, studies have shown that contact with friends and family helps to lower recidivism rates but for many of these Hawaiian prisoners, visitations are an impossibility; a $2,000 trip to a desert penitentiary is a hard financial pill to swallow for most prisoners’ families.
Kaiana Haili has observed the struggles of native Hawaiian prisoners like Delbert firsthand. Every year, he travels to Eloy to conduct Makahiki (Hawaiian new year), and was instrumental in getting Hawaiian language and hula classes into Arizona prisons, which he believes helps the Hawaiians on the mainland cope and improves their chances of staying out of trouble when released. In spite of this, he says that the lack of contact with families, coupled with historical lack of access to opportunities, makes rehabilitation for mainland-bound native Hawaiians particularly problematic.
In part because of these issues, Hawaiian Governor Neil Abercrombie promised in December 2010 to bring all Hawaiian prisoners from the mainland back to Hawaii. The out-of-state system "destroys families. It is dysfunctional all the way around -- socially, economically, politically and morally," he said. But in June 2011 he approved a three-year, $136.5 million contract with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to keep about 2,000 prisoners on the mainland.
This feature will explore the hidden human costs of prison outsourcing — fractured families, loss of cultural identity, increased likelihood of recidivism — and weigh them against the fiscal benefits of the practice. We’ll follow Delbert Wakinekona on his journey through the prison system, and discover where he ended up on the other side.