FROM A CAREER IN CRIME TO A CAREER IN CHRIST
AN EX-INMATE TRIES TO
BREAK THE CYCLE FOR
HAWAII'S CHILDREN AFFECTED
BY THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Near the Leeward Community College, on a tight one-way gravel drive, you can find Agape Christian Fellowship Oahu.
A church settled here, between a backyard car shop and an agricultural farm. At the end of the gravel driveway, surrounded by rusty roof panels and chain-linked fences, are the ranch grounds, including a small well-kept grass lawn encircled by Norfolk pine, palm trees and a gravel road.
Near the perimeter of the lawn sits the stage.
Roy yamamoto on ...
This white platform, used daily by members of the fellowship, is fitted with a public-address system on which children practice their testimonials and members recite their life stories. This is all preparation for the long-awaited February outreach to Arizona. Hanging behind the microphone stands on the stage is a sign that reads ‘Agape’ in bold, a Greek word for love used in the Bible, and the essence of the church and its founder’s mission.
Past the gravel driveway behind the stage is Roy Yamamoto’s small studio office. Yamamoto is inside surrounded by his religious books and camp photos. In his tightly packed office, Yamamoto marks up his calendars and glances through paperwork while finishing a call in preparation for this year’s outreach program. Yamamoto’s phone is almost busier than he is, his ringer constantly playing a tune. Yamamoto is always thanking volunteers and donors for his cause with gifts. These gifts range from fundraising dinners, smoked meats and other delights.
However, the real gifts are given at the outreach in Arizona, shown in the faces of children attending Camp Agape, “where they can forget their rough life and enjoy being a kid,” Yamamoto said. He takes a group of church members, and some local entertainers, like The Braddahs, to Arizona’s Saguaro correctional facility, a CoreCivic private prison that holds almost a quarter of Hawaii state's inmates.
“Majority of all the Hawaii inmates that are sent away, are at Arizona right now because of the overcrowding,” said Yamamoto, “and a lot of them are Samoans, Hawaiians, local people.”
While there, they will bring the love and feeling of home to the 1,618, Hawaii inmates, sent away because of Hawaii’s overcrowded prisons. Since 1995, the state started to transfer state inmates to facilities on the mainland. More recently the state has favored Saguaro Correctional Facility.
At the start of 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal complaint requesting an investigation on the overcrowding in Hawaii’s prisons. The complaint stated that the State of Hawaiʻi operates nine correctional facilities with a combined design bed capacity of 2,491 inmates. Seven of those facilities are “overcrowded” by the inmate count exceeding their designed bed capacity.
Recently, Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety’s End of the Month Population states there are 3,701 inmates under DPS as of this October. The report shows additional beds added to facilities, yet still face overpopulation. The DPS also reports 1,738 inmates are housed at mainland contracted facilities, with 250 at the Federal Correctional Facility.
Yamamoto is devoted to God and helping those trapped in Hawaii’s criminal justice system. Other than the Arizona prison outreach, he created a mentorship program and camp to assist the children of incarcerated parents in Hawaii. Agape states that in the U.S. over 800,000 incarcerated parents have more than 1,800,000 children who are minors. While in Hawaii, the child of an incarcerated parent is 50 percent more likely to be incarcerated as well.
According to a 2010 OHA report, although Hawai‘i released 644 people from prison to parole in 2009, 249 people also were returned to prison by revoking parole.
In Hawaii, the recidivism rate is 56 percent, according to a report from the Department of Sociology from UH Manoa and the State of Hawaii Attorney General Department.
There is a vicious cycle that perpetuates and extends prison sentences, even more so for Native Hawaiians serving in or out of a Hawaii state prison.
According to a study released by OHA, “In 2003, Native Hawaiian youth were the most frequently arrested in all offense categories.”
Yamamoto’s devotion to help Hawaii’s inmates begun when he was released from prison nearly a decade ago. The senior pastor
-- with his large build and healthy smile -- once was labeled as a career criminal. Before finding his church, Yamamoto said, he found crystal meth.
Early on, he struggled with a learning disability and violent upbringing. As he got older, his problems would only continue. Without receiving help, he found himself addicted to drugs and doing anything to support his cruel habit. Yamamoto said he never learned to read or write until he was in prison.
“It's funny how God can change somebody’s life, from being a career criminal, supposed to spend life in prison, and a drug habit over a $1,000 a day, you know, it's only by the grace of God,” Yamamoto said.
Bound by his addiction of meth and cocaine, Yamamoto said he found himself imprisoned more than five times, all of which were for felony crimes.
Sentence after sentence, Roy lived life in a cell away from his wife, loved ones and his baby daughter. In the '90s, before he straightened his life out, Yamamoto’s daughter grew up without knowing her father, until her high school graduation.
Yamamoto was leaning on crystal meth and entered the drug business. He was the muscle and would collect the money from deals and buyers. Yamamoto would need to get violent from time to time, he said, as he would collect on bad deals and addicts with a debt. Yamamoto’s criminal record thickened as he continued with a life of drugs and violence.
It was only when he faced a life sentence that Yamamoto would open his arms to change. He was being charged for aggravated robbery, where Yamamoto and a partner were arrested for violently collecting on a bad drug deal.
“Almost 5 years in and out, and I became a career criminal because of the crimes. I got off easy, but I was still convicted, so the last time, they gave me 80 years to life as a career criminal, and that’s when I gave my life to the lord and God changed my heart,” Yamamoto said.
“God said to do that ‘cause they were hurting the most, and they're kids were hurting the most back there for the ones that were doing the hard time,” said Yamamoto.
The Camp is spent treating and teaching kids about forgiveness, trust and relationships with others including their distant parents.
Yamamoto facilitates the programs for the children, which encourages kids to open up and forget about their rough life, even if it’s just for four days. The annual event takes place filled with an intentional series of activities that “share the Gospel of Jesus Christ through love, trust, forgiveness and hope.”
It was 1996, and Yamamoto sat in a cell awaiting his hearing. His lawyer had just told him that he could face a stacked sentence of 80 years as a career criminal. Broken down with the possibility of living his life in a cell, Yamamoto dropped to his knees and prayed in his concrete cell. “I prayed for a miracle in prison, that God would give me a Christian judge when I went to court and the judge dropped the charge,” Yamamoto said.
That judge was Elwin Ahu. Judge Ahu over the hearings found that his sanctions should be dropped. Yamamoto pleaded to Ahu that he could change, and with lack of evidence and issues with the victim’s own history of drugs, Yamamoto was freed.
“Its funny how god can change somebody’s life, from being a career criminal , supposed to spend life in prison, and a drug habit over a $1000 a day, you know, it's only by the grace of god.” Yamamoto said.
In Saguaro prison, Yamamoto’s outreach mission in 2006 was introduced to Lanaki “Kai” Adric, who served 15 years for methamphetamine possession and reckless endangerment.
Adric was sentenced to Arizona for five years in 2004. Every year, month and week that he served, was a test of his willpower, reasoning, and even his life. All of it was at risk. Adric found some relief When the outreach group Yamamoto is part of visited Saguaro then. Although he made it out, Kai explains the violent and stressful situations many Hawaii inmates face while being locked away in Arizona.
The private prison in Arizona was an environment of violence, vulnerability, and range of criminals with a range of skills and experiences. The staff had no means to improve his situation while Adric was serving his sentence in Arizona.
Native Hawaiians make up 24 percent of the general prison population of Hawai‘i, but 27 percent of all arrests, 33 percent of people in pretrial detention, 29 percent of people sentenced to probation, and 36 percent were admitted to prison in 2009.
Adric served a total 15 years under Hawaii’s Criminal Justice System, doing time in OCCC, Halawa and eventually Saguaro Prison. However by the time he got to Arizona he had already made peace with himself. He just needs to serve the remainder of his sentence without extending his term, or worse. This would be around the time where things got violent for many inmates serving time in Saguaro prison.
Adric recalls one time, after returning to his cell, was immediately challenged by his cellmate, a prison veteran of 12 years.
“My roommate, was already strapped up, and what that means is, he already had his shoes on, he had already packed his stuff and he was all ready to fight and go to the hole,” said Adric. “By the time I got there, he was already snapping on me. When he started to snap, of course I responded because I’m not just gonna take any kind of abuse.”
That day before returning to his cell, Kai was out seeing his family who came for visitation rights. His family flew from Oahu, nearly 3,800 miles from home—something most families can’t afford or rarely do.
“Calls from back home are rare due to collect calls and prices from families back home can get expensive quick,” said Roy Yamamoto. “So no one really expects an actually visit from the prison, and it really affects them.”
When Adric responded in defense, preparing himself to fight this older inmate known for some “heinous crimes”, who Adric thought intended to cause serious harm to him advanced toward his roommate. Instantly, the aggravated cellmate began to breakdown and weep. Right there in the cell. Adric thought he was about to fight and was urged to ask, “What's your problem?” Kai said, “Brah, what’s your trip?”
Adric’s roommate responded to him, that he was alone and locked up, with no one ever coming to visit him. The roommate took his frustrations out on Adric.
“I realized there's this loneliness that comes with this man," Kai said. “he only was responding because of the hurt he's gone through.”
Another thing Adric realized was anything in prison done or said could provoke someone, come back to haunt you, even a family visit setting someone off.
Hawaii inmates not versed in this stressful, violent environment filled with gangs and conflict, must either quickly adjust to the situation, become victimized or dead.
“There’s no type of thought process, just like cattle, they just put you together and you gotta deal with it,” said Adric. “But if something really were to happen, then I would have to do more time, because I would have to protect myself, I can't just let someone hurt me!”
Hawaii's inmate population grew by roughly a fifth, to nearly 6,000. Hawaii's relationship with CCA deepened with the opening, in 2007, of the Saguaro Correctional Center: Its 1,926 beds were contracted exclusively to handle Hawaii's overflow.
“It was just there to just contain, but I had put myself in there. it's like the Bible says, ‘reap what you sow,’ and I was sowing that seed. You know that was the consequences.”
At 40 years old, and a new person, Adric now volunteers with Yamamoto’s mentorship program on the island of Oahu. He has successfully stayed away from prison since.
LANAKAI "KAI" ADRIC
Judge Ahu dropped the heavy charge against him and was willing to give probation with special terms served. Later on, after the court proceedings, Yamamoto kept his promise and went to the first church he saw. When he entered, he was stunned to witness his judge on stand, testifying to God. Afterward they met, the two would grow a bond that would cement Yamamoto’s life with God. Ahu would be a helping hand to Yamamoto during the time with his legal proceedings.
However, the state would come for Yamamoto again, appealing Ahu’s decision. The system wanted to throw the book and lock him up for good. This time with a different judge and more information and evidence. The former mayor, Peter Carlisle, at the time was the head of a special unit for career criminals that worked on Yamamoto’s case.
“The public environment at the time was tired of repeating criminals from receiving deals and light sentences. Our goal was to put the real bad guys behind bars for good or a really long time,” said Carlisle, but some involved with the case thought Yamamoto deserved another chance.
That chance would come with Circuit Court Judge Michael Town. Judge Town was to decide on the case in 1999. Already in his late 30s, Yamamoto feared spending the rest of his life in prison.
After many appearances in court since 1996, the world was near the end of the century and Yamamoto’s life was turning around. He had his family and a community of church members by his side.
Yamamoto pled guilty to his crimes and arranged an agreement. His church members testified for him. Judge Town looked at Yamamoto’s charges from previous hearings. Judge Town no longer saw that man before him. Town denied the continuation of court and left Yamamoto to serve a concurrent probation of five years probation with special terms
"I was Chief Judge for the Family and Circuit Court, and I never changed the way I handled cases over politics other than the record,” said Town, currently a Probation Commissioner. “If he got probation, then he would have earned it, and it worked out, didn’t it.”
The turmoil from lost time within the prison urged Yamamoto to focus his energy and his newfound relationship with Christ, to correct himself both in the eyes of Hawaii’s justice system and God. In prison, he received a generous gift from the Angel Tree program. One year, on Christmas day, that group gave a present to Yamamoto’s 9-year old daughter, who he wouldn’t see till she graduated high school.
In prison, he missed a lot and worked hard not only to improve his life and the relationships among his family's members but also for those facing similar consequences as well. Yamamoto drives Camp Agape as a different man with a community of support by his side.
“Almost 5 years in and out, and I became a career criminal because of the crimes, I got off easy, but I was still convicted so the last time they gave me 80 years to life as a career criminal, and that’s when I gave my life to the lord and god changed my heart.” Yamamoto said.
“God said to do that ‘cause they were hurting the most, and they're kids were hurting the most back there for the ones that were doing the hard time,” said Yamamoto.
“They struggle with so much hardship," said Yamamoto. “But at this camp you can see these kids break down the walls, and just be kids, be who they're supposed to be.”
The children engage in activities from archery, beach time, games and crafts, even skits and one-on-one mentoring.
“The camp is for all the children that have their parents in there and we wanted to create this free camp for them to come just to share god's love with them,” said Yamamoto. “It’s a free and we supply everything for them, even horseback riding and surf lessons.” All of the program’s money comes from the group’s partners and donations
An online profile of New Hope Prison Ministry.
IMPACT OF ARIZONA OUTREACH
Since his final release, Yamamoto has spoke to thousands of the moment he was determined to change, especially to the inmates sitting where he was more than a decade ago.
“Roy believes faith is the only way to really change a person and better themselves.” said Erica Miles, who volunteers at the Camp with her husband. “Look at him, he’s a testament to that."
Yamamoto works with a large group of churches and their members to connect the flown-away inmates to their loved ones back home. Through Camp Agape and its Angel Tree program, the group records the children receiving gifts and brings these videos to the parents serving time in Arizona.
Since 2005, the outreach group has flown to Arizona more than a dozen times and saved hundreds of inmates through baptisms done inside the prison. Yamamoto remembers back when they made their first successful trip to Arizona in the outreach that reached over 270 inmates, most of whom were from prisons in Hawaii.
The group spends all year working in preparation for this event. Members either help with finance, fundraising or working in gathering all the equipment and gifts needed for the outreach. The groups gathers tons of local Hawaiian goodies and snacks for the homesick inmates 2,931 miles away from home.
Native Hawaiians only count for 12 percent of the total statewide population, according to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ report on Native Hawaiian men’s health. In 2012, Native Hawaiians constituted 17.7 percent of the total adult population in Hawai‘i. In the male prison population, Native Hawaiians accounted for 37 percent, and in the female prison population 40 percent.
Just like Yamamoto, 75 members who volunteer at the Camp are also ex-inmates helping mentor or with camp ministries. “When I first got to the camp I was shocked,” said Erica Miles, a church member and volunteer for Agape Christian Fellowship. “I was talking to all these men, who were humble and really nice, and found out they were all ex-inmates, who changed their lives.”