Prison: A Place of Healing

KAILUA WOMAN FINDS HOPE AND AN OPPORTUNITY TO HELP OTHERS BEHIND BARS

Growing up in Kailua, a small beachside town on the Windward side of Oʻahu, Daphne Hoʻokano could often be found hanging out with older cousins and their friends who’d frequently drink booze and smoke. The surfers, the beer, the music; she glamorized that lifestyle. But as she tried to fit in, experimenting with marijuana and alcohol before middle school, that lifestyle quickly consumed her.

 

By 12, she was smoking and selling marijuana, and by high school, dealing cocaine, and acid. Her actions developed into an identity. To friends, she soon became known as “Daph the Stoner.”

 

Like others who have battled drug and alcohol addiction, Hoʻokano found herself in trouble with the law multiple times, including arrests for promoting a dangerous drug and possession of drug paraphernalia,  a cycle she said that needed to end, if not for herself then for her growing son. In prison, Hoʻokano expected a place of punishment and correction. Instead, she found a place of healing and revelation.

 

According to the state’s latest study on recidivism, or a count of who returns and who doesn’t to jail, more than half of the parolees released in Hawaii in 2013 were either rearrested or violated their parole conditions within three years. The warden at that time, Mark Patterson, decided to make a change in the way the state viewed women prisoners. Hoʻokano became a model for that new approach.

“We take people to prison. We break their spirits, and then we turn them out, broken, into the community, and then we blame them,” said Kat Brady, Coordinator of Community Alliance on Prisons. “Then we send them back,

so we can repeat that unsuccessful cycle.”

 

In an effort to reduce recidivism, Patterson set out to treat the facility as a Puʻuhonua, a place of healing and refuge.

 

“I was a wreck,” Hoʻokano said. "Prison was the biggest blessing in my life.”

“I was a wreck,” Hoʻokano said. "Prison was the biggest blessing in my life.”

Hoʻokano’s life wasn’t always this way. At 17, she found out she was pregnant. In an

effort to better her life for her son, she stopped using and selling drugs. With the sales skills she said she developed in high school by selling drugs, like marketing her product and building relationships with clients, she managed a fitness spa and worked part-time as a substitute teacher. After reconnecting with a man she knew from elementary school, they went on to marry. He worked as a journeyman, providing them with a life accustomed to having money, Hoʻokano said.

 

 

By the 10 year mark of their marriage, though, her husband filed for divorce.

 

At 32, while going through a difficult divorce and dealing with the death of her father, she needed money fast and resorted to old habits.

 

“I had to think of something quick to make money to put food on the table for my son,” she said. “So there, I went back to selling [drugs] again.”

 

Hoʻokano reentered the lifestyle she worked so hard to escape.

 

While working as a substitute teacher by day, Hoʻokano admits to selling drugs to help with bills by night. And that’s where things began to spiral out-of-control, she said.

 

“When you start dealing ice and cocaine and heavy things like that like, a lot of trauma comes with it. A lot of violence,” she said.

 

Hoʻokano was robbed and beaten multiple times for drugs. She recalled one incident in which a man she dated for nearly a month woke her up from bed demanding more cocaine. Hoʻokano had none. The man drug her outside and pulverized her face, damaging the bones and nerves.

 

Daphne Hoʻokano

“It was a long recovery,” she said. “My nerves have been very weak since then.”

 

She was arrested in 2006 on four counts of meth trafficking and faced over 20 years in prison. After accepting a plea bargain, she was sentenced to 10 years at the Women’s Community Correctional Center. After being sent to Kentucky for a few months due to overcrowding at the local jail, Hoʻokano lost her vision in her right eye as a result of the damaged nerves.

 

After returning to Hawaii, she was still in disbelief that her choices led to her sharing a cement cell with two other women.

 

“I'm like, ‘what am I doing in prison?’” she said. “I had all these jobs. I had a real estate license. I was a school teacher. I was a manager at the spa. Like, I had all these wonderful jobs and everything was lost.”

 

At first, she resisted treatment programs. But, as she began to gain clarity, she remembers feeling broken, empty, and lost. With the guilt of putting her son in potentially dangerous situations weighing on her shoulders, she knew something needed to change and began to work on herself.

 

“One day I woke up said what am I doing? What am I doing to my son?,” she said.

“My mom was getting old. Her and my son had been through many raids.”

In one raid, she said her son and his friends had been sleeping in their living room when police came slamming through the doors with guns drawn. Children screamed and neighbors watched while her elderly mother was thrown against an officer’s car. Hoʻokano, now 42, was in disbelief.

 

She enrolled in Ke Alaula, a therapeutic community treatment program based on traditional Hawaiian culture and values that was offered through the prison. The program helped Hoʻokano, also part Native Hawaiian, to understand herself and reevaluate her core beliefs.

 

 

While she stood behind the prison walls, she remembers a supervisor telling her she had a choice: She can choose to never have to go back to using or selling drugs again.

 

As that thought settled in her mind, she began to realize maybe the guard was right. Her outlook on life changed.

 

“I’ll never forget that,” Hoʻokano said. “That was the one line that stuck with me. I have a choice.”

While Hoʻokano was incarcerated at the WCCC, the prison was also going through a change. Warden Patterson had begun to implement new strategies to address overcrowding.

 

According to Patterson, the prison had severe overcrowding issues when he began in 2006. More than 100 inmates were housed outside the Kailua facility.

 

“When I got there, there were 300 women at the prison,” he said. “I had about 175 in Kentucky and another 100 at the Federal Detention Center, all because of the overcrowding.”

He noticed many of the women suffered from trauma which leads them to drugs and alcohol as a method to cope. Patterson said he’s seen women choose longer prison time rather than dealing with the emotional scars.

 

 

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, experiencing a traumatic event increases the risk of developing a substance abuse problem. Trauma — in the form of physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters, car accidents, traumatic loss, war, or other calamities — may lead to substance abuse and addiction.

 

Patterson set out to create programs to heal inmates to which he believed would keep the women from returning. The prison implemented a new system, the Trauma-Informed Care Initiative, which helped the women through their experiences to reduce their chances of returning.

 

“Once women come to terms with their trauma, they develop coping issues,” Patterson said. “Most women don’t wanna deal with the trauma, don’t wanna remember what happened, so we had to develop programs that would allow them to break the walls down so they can face their worst fear so we can begin to heal them.”

Inmates at the Women’s Community Correctional Center visited the Beacon House of Hope for Christmas party last year. Women were able to share their stories and journeys from both in the prison and life after.

“It’s lifesaving work,” Cox said.

Through cultural and faith-based activities like working in lo’i, oli and chant, and bible studies, Hoʻokano grew a stronger understanding of self and connection with God.

 

For the 40 percent of the women at WCCC who are Native Hawaiian -- who are also disproportionately represented among the prison population according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration -- Patterson believed reconnecting with the land and culture would begin the healing process.

 

“I took everything they offered there,” Hoʻokano said.

 

One of the programs, Prison Writing Project, a small creative writing class taught by Pat Clough, allowed the women to express themes in their own lives through literature, poetry, film and music. The inmates were able to share their work through a special performance called “Prison Monologues.”

 

“They learn to address their fears, longings, anger, and shame, using their own words to progress through self-discovery and healing,” Clough said in a news release.

Hoʻokano, along with a few other inmates, were part of the first class that was allowed to perform their stories at schools and organizations throughout the community.

 

That’s when Warden Patterson began to take notice of Hoʻokano’s leadership role in the prison.

 

Patterson said she encompassed his vision for the women of the prison, to become role models for the others.

 

“She was one of the first women that I threw out there publicly and nationally that was a product of the new system that we created at the women’s prison,” he said.

 

Upon being released on parole in 2012, five years early, after serving four years, Hoʻokano was invited by Patterson to join his Trauma Informed Care team. She traveled across the country, sharing her story and learning more about trauma and recovery.

Reverend Sam Cox and his wife Barbara ‘Babs’ Grace

Patterson introduced Hoʻokano to Kailua United Methodist Church pastor Sam Cox, who served as the program director at Hale Kipa, a non-profit program helping at-risk youth for the past 25 years. The two shared a vision to help women transition from prison and build a solid foundation through the promises of God.

 

Together they opened the Beacon of Hope House, a transitional home tucked away in a quiet Windward Oahu neighborhood, where she was able to continue the healing of women. Cox leases his home to the program for one dollar a year. The women then pay a “modest” rent to cover utilities and bills. Seven churches in the community also support the home.

 

Assisting four to five women at a time, Hoʻokano said the Beacon of Hope House serves as a place for change. The women are hand-selected by Hoʻokano who said they must have the desire to be better.

 

 

Hoʻokano struggled to gain approval by the Hawaii Paroling authority to allow parolees to live under one roof. After convincing the board that women who served together have a special bond that’s essential to their success, she was approved.

 

Cox said Hoʻokano has been in the shoes of the women she helps and serves as a role model, showing the women they too can be successful in their healing.

 

Since opening in 2013, they have successfully helped over 20 women. Assisting them with employment, credit building opportunities and housing after completing their time at the home.

 

“They have no credit rating because they’ve been in prison. They can’t make a deposit on a place to live or have a driver's license,” Cox said. “So we’re able to help them, and we’re very proud about that.”

 

“It’s lifesaving work,” Cox said describing the help they provide.

Now, 11 years clean and sober, Hoʻokano will soon be graduating with her master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She plans to continue to facilitate the Beacon of Hope house while also trying to get back into the prison, but this time as the director of the WCCC’s Residential Drug Treatment Program.

 

“It's crazy. It all began with that one sentence,” Hoʻokano said. “I had choices.”

Written By : Ka'ainoa Fernandez
Published: Dec. 13, 2017
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