at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona perform
a chant as a part of their protocol to celebrate makahiki,
a period in the native Hawaiian lunar calendar when peace
and proseprerity are at focus. (photo courtesy Chapin Hall)
For many of the Native Hawaiian inmates at the the Saguaro Correctional
Center in Eloy, Arizona, director Ciara Lacy visited for her new
documentary, prison was the first time they were ever exposed to
most Hawaiian traditions.
"To come to prison without those cultural connections and then
to find something in terms of identity in prison, it was really
powerful to see," Lacy told NBC News. "I speak Hawaiian, and I am
a Native Hawaiian. These are men from my community."
The film, "Out of State," which is scheduled to make its debut
at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 18, largely takes place
at the private prison, which was specifically built to house Hawaiian
inmates due to the overcrowding of the facilities in their home
state, according to the documentary. It was there Lacy met David
and Hale, two longtime inmates who are adjusting to life an ocean
away from home.
"This is not a simple problem. It's shedding a light on a practice
that's not uncommon," Lacy said of the concept of sending inmates
to other states to serve out their sentences. "It's not uncommon
to ship people out of state [due to overcrowding in local prisons.]
This is just one of the more extreme examples."
"They are teaching it to
each other, so there is this access to learning to speak Hawaiian
She noted that the practice places enormous financial and emotional
burdens on the spouses, children, and other family members the inmates
"For the family of an inmate, the distance has an indelible
impact. The flight to Arizona is roughly six hours, and then there
are the additional costs of a hotel room and car rental. It's expensive,"
she said, adding that many of the Arizona-based inmates told her
that they never had any visitors at all.
"They really appreciated that somebody from home was able to
come out there [and tell their story] and process it," Lacy said.
"To know that people from home were interested in their stories
was important to them."
Kahalewai works to reconnect with his daughter after his incarceration.
(photo courtesy Chapin Hall)
Over the course of the film, viewers watch as David, Hale, and
the other inmates participate in traditional Native Hawaiian religious
ceremonies, learn the language, and form a community with their
peers. The connection with indigenous Hawaiian culture the inmates
found in prison was particularly remarkable because of the history
of the state, which didn't allow the teaching of the Hawaiian language
between 1896 and 1978, according
to the Hawaii State Department of Education.
"My mother's generation wasn't allowed to speak Hawaiian. Then
there were protests in the 1970s to bring the language back, which
is how I learned it in school," Lacy said. "Now there are more people
learning Hawaiian growing up, but there was a gap in language acquisition
because my mother [and other parents] couldn't teach their kids."
That gap in cultural knowledge is apparent among the prisoners,
who along with their spiritual advisers are actively working to
close it. "It's almost viral," Lacy said of the popularity of Hawaiian
among the inmates. "They are teaching it to each other, so there
is this access to learning to speak Hawaiian in prison."
"You're trying to repair
your relationships with your friends and family. You're trying
to find a job. And it's impossible to do that when you are
so far away."
Lacy added that because the ability to practice one's religion
in prison is a civil right, the inmates are guaranteed the time,
space, and tools like traditional Hawaiian instruments and access
to language textbooks that they need. Additionally, cultural advisers
like the late Kaiana Haili would regularly visit the inmates to
instruct them and provide guidance. "These guys are just so connected,"
Lacy said. "They have the greatest bond."
But despite the spiritual support many of the prisoners receive
in Arizona, reintegrating back into society after returning to Hawaii
remains a challenge. As a result, many of the newly-returned former
inmates struggle with finding housing and employment, while at the
same time working to reestablish relationships with their children
and partners, according to Lacy.
"For a lot of the men, getting out is an adjustment," Lacy said.
"You're trying to repair your relationships with your friends and
family. You're trying to find a job. And it's very difficult to
prepare for this in advance, when you're so far away."