Can Prison Be a Healing Place?

Why the warden of Hawaii’s only women’s prison creates a sanctuary for its residents.

Warden Mark Kawika Patterson shows off the banana plants, taro patch, and vegetable gardens grown on prison grounds by inmates and community partners.

Photo by Sarah van Gelder.

When Warden Mark Kawika Patterson started work at the Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCCC) outside Honolulu, he made a discovery that upended his ideas about prisons. Fully a third of the inmates at Hawaii’s only women’s prison were on medication for psychiatric disorders, 90 percent of their crimes were drug related, and, of those who were addicts, 75 percent had a history of emotional, physical, or sexual trauma.

These women don’t need punishment, Patterson realized. They need a place to heal. He set out to reinvent the WCCC as a pu‘uhonua. In traditional Hawaiian culture, a pu‘uhonua is a sanctuary where those who break a taboo or rule, or are fleeing violent conflict, can go for forgiveness and transformation.

Daphne Ho'okano

"We go through stages in prison: denial, grief, anger, and then freedom ... I got free in prison." —former inmate and current mentor, Daphne Ho'okano.

Like many prisons, the WCCC had few programs for the inmates when Patterson arrived. Although most of the inmates were incarcerated for minor infractions and classified as minimum security, the entire inmate population of 270 was treated like the 80 prisoners requiring higher security measures. In spite of the large number of women with psychiatric ailments, there were no full-time mental-health professionals, just a part-time psychiatrist. The correctional officers were helping as they could, says Warden Patterson. Some bought crayons and coloring books with their own money so the women with mental illness would come out of their cells and join other women at tables in the courtyards.

But apart from funding for a substance abuse program, there was no money for programs to help the women rebuild their spirits and learn the job and life skills they would need to succeed on the outside. In fact, the prison budget was being cut.

So the warden turned to the larger community for help and found people in all walks of life prepared to step in.

One of the groups that responded was the Lanikai-Kailua Outdoor Circle, a local conservation group that helps inmates grow vegetables in hydroponic gardens. The greens they raise go to the prison kitchen. And together they build small, portable hydroponic gardens that inmates can take with them when they are released.

A culinary arts instructor from the Kapiolani Community College teaches cooking, and inmates who earn certificates are getting good job offers when they’re released. A welding instructor has also been teaching a class.

Although they represent only 20 percent of the state’s population, Native Hawaiians comprise 43 percent of the prison population, so Patterson, who is himself Native Hawaiian, looks for ways to help the women learn their traditions. With the help of the Honolulu Garden Club, the inmates raise taro, bananas, and sugar cane, incorporating traditional Hawaiian agricultural practices.

“We’ve forgotten how to be a village—how to depend on each other,” Patterson says. “We used to take care of the kolohe, the people who are hardheaded,” he says. “But now we don’t rely on our neighbors anymore. It’s easy to take the kolohe person and just throw them away.

“My idea is to get the community involved in bringing [the women] back into the community.”

For the Children

More than half of the women at WCCC are mothers. Children can visit the prison on weekends, if their caregivers bring them. Counselors from a local nonprofit, Keiki o ka ‘Aina —Children of the Land—observe the interactions and coach the mothers in effective parenting. The same group co-hosts picnics for the inmates and their children several times a year, featuring barbecues prepared by the inmates, games, and time for quiet conversations and hugs.

Sometimes the children’s caregivers ask the warden why the women are getting such good treatment. Many of these are relatives angry about the burden of raising children while their mothers serve time behind bars.

“I tell them it’s for the children,” the warden says. “So the children won’t wind up in prison, too.”

But the women must be making progress with the issues that got them locked up if they want to participate. “Because I’ve sent these women out, sad-faced, with seven or eight kids,” Patterson says, “and then they’re back in a week or two.”

Getting Free

One of those recently released from the WCCC is Daphne Ho‘okano, who served four years for trafficking in methamphetamines. Ho‘okano started selling drugs at age 12 and began drinking with other members of her close-knit extended family when she was 13.

“When I first came in, I pictured myself behind bars, in lockdown,” says Ho‘okano, as she recalls a map of her life she drew when she first came to prison. “There was just me all by myself, and there was no sunshine.”

At first she resisted the treatment programs. “We go through stages in prison,” she says. “Denial, grief, anger, ... and then freedom.”

Today, she’s setting up a mentoring program to help others getting out of WCCC. “Life doesn’t get easier just because you’re out of prison,” she says. “You need help out there, someone who walked the same walk as you, to hold your hand and guide you. That’s what drives me—to be part of the solution.”

Ho‘okano points to her new map showing her life beyond addiction and criminality. “This is me, soaring in the light,” she says. “I got free in prison.”

With teachers and mentors from the community pitching in, Patterson believes other inmates can likewise find their way to freedom.

“I like to take first steps that have never been done before,” Patterson says. “Then, if no one slaps my hand, I just keep on going.” The warden’s next project? Tear up the pavement in the prison courtyards and transform these outdoor areas into lush, green gardens.

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