Alisha Kaluhiokalani spent most of her first year at Hawaii’s only women’s prison alone in a 6-by-8 foot cell. 

She fought, broke the rules, and lashed out at everyone around her. Because of that, she was frequently sent to “lock” – what everyone at the Women’s Community Correctional Center called solitary confinement. 

On a rare afternoon in the prison yard Kaluhiokalani heard a mellow, hollow sound. “What was that?” she whispered to herself. 

She looked across the yard and saw a prison staff member playing the ukulele. 

“You play?” he asked. 

She nodded, taking the instrument and starting to strum. She sang “I Kona,” a traditional Hawaiian song loved by her father. 

“You want to continue to play that?” the man asked her. 

“Yes,” she said. 

“Stay out of lock.”  

So she did.  

It was the ukulele, a Hawaiian language class, and her encounter with the man in the yard more than 20 years ago that changed Kaluhiokalani’s educational trajectory. 

‘Not Knowing Who You Are’

Native Hawaiians like Kaluhiokalani are disproportionately locked up in the Hawaii criminal justice system, making up only 20% of the general population but 40% of people in prison. Similar imbalances are true for Indigenous people across the country.

Among other states with significant overrepresentation of Indigenous people are Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. Native women in particular have higher incarceration rates than the general population.

Native Hawaiians are more likely to struggle with addiction, drop out of school and go to prison. Many feel alienated from Western education systems, Kaluhiokalani said, and that their cultural identity has been suppressed in the wake of historical losses of land and language. 

“They call that the ‘eha … the hurt, and not knowing who you are,” she said. 

That was something she has struggled with personally. She has often felt like a screw up given the life she has lived, she said. There have been times in her life when she had a hard time seeing herself as anything other than an addict or a prisoner. 

Kaluhiokalani became pregnant with her first child at 17. She finished her GED before the baby was born by taking classes at night. Her boyfriend, Jacob, enlisted in the National Guard, and over the next few years they had three more children. During that time, they both struggled with addiction and cycled in and out of jail. She went to prison for the first time on drug-related charges at the age of 23.

In prison, shortly after that first year in solitary, Kaluhiokalani enrolled in her first college class, Hawaiian 101.

“That was a tipping point,” she said. 

Being able to learn her language taught her about her identity and helped her see that there was a place for her in higher education. After that, she started working in the prison’s education department and created informal Hawaiian culture classes for her peers. 

“I full-force dedicated myself to my culture, to helping people,” Kaluhiokalani said. 

All higher education in prison has been shown to reduce recidivism, but incorporating culture into college programs can empower incarcerated Native Hawaiians in different ways, said Ardis Eschenberg, chancellor of Windward Community College. 

“Pushing back on the narratives of colonization and racism through Hawaiian studies,” she said, “fights the very systems that have led to our unjust incarceration outcomes and underscores the agency and value of our students in education, community and society.”  

Left: Alisha Kaluhiokalani at the University of Hawaii Manoa graduation on May 13. Photo courtesy of Alisha Kaluhiokalani. Right: Alisha Kaluhiokalani has kept the text book – Ka Lei Ha’aheo: Beginning Hawaiian – from the first college course she took in prison 20 years ago.

A Lack of Programs

Despite the benefits, there are few college programs in the United States that specifically target Indigenous people in prison. Windward Community College’s Pu‘uhonua program is an exception. It’s the only higher education institution in Hawaii offering culturally focused classes in prison, and one of only two offering degree programs. 

Last fall, the college started an associate’s degree in Hawaiian studies at Halawa Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison. The college was selected for a federal program known as Second Chance Pell, which has provided federal financial aid to people in prison on a pilot basis since 2015. 

Eschenberg said that their focus on cultural education for incarcerated Indigenous students is part of Windward’s mission as a Native Hawaiian-serving institution. Almost 43% of their students on campus are Native Hawaiian, the highest in the University of Hawaii system. 

For Native Hawaiians, learning about their culture is “validating them in a society where so much of Hawaiian existence has been invalidated in history,” Eschenberg said. And cultural education, she adds, benefits everyone. 

“There’s robust research that shows that even outside of Native Hawaiian studies, ethnic studies courses in general helped to build resilience and success for students.” 

Windward has also offered a psycho-social developmental studies certificate with coursework in sociology, psychology, and social work at the women’s prison since 2016. They offer Hawaiian studies classes as electives, and focus on the Hawaiian context for the other coursework, Eschenberg said. 

In addition, Windward faculty teach Hawaiian music-related coursework, such as ukulele and slack-key guitar, at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. The students earn both high school and college credit. 

The college’s prison education program has primarily been funded by a five-year U.S. Education Department grant for Native Hawaiian-serving institutions that runs out this year. The expansion of Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison in July will help sustain the Pu‘uhonua program going forward. Eschenberg said that Pell dollars will help pay for instructor salaries for courses taught inside, but there are still costs not covered by federal financial aid. 

Eschenberg had hoped that the Hawaii Legislature would approve a bill appropriating state funding for staff positions, such as academic counselors and coordinators, to support the Pu`uhonua program because those positions aren’t covered by Pell Grants. The bill stalled in the legislature in April. Eschenberg said she’s currently applying for two federal grants to secure the necessary funding to keep the program running. 

Elsewhere, other college-in-prison programs also have started to provide more opportunities for people to focus on their own cultures. In California, San Francisco State University last year created an ethnic studies certificate in state juvenile facilities. Portland State University’s prison education program also recently received a national grant to offer humanities courses focused on identity, including Indigenous Nations Studies, at Oregon’s only women’s prison. 

While more programs in the United States are offering ethnic studies classes, few of those courses focus on Native people. Full degrees like Windward’s Hawaiian studies program specifically focused on Indigenous language and culture are even rarer, said Mneesha Gellman, political scientist and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative, which offers a bachelor’s degree in Massachusetts. Gellman’s research focuses on Indigenous language access and education. 

Much of the cultural learning that currently occurs in prisons is informal education offered through community groups, prison arts organizations, or classes organized by incarcerated people. Those are valuable, Gellman said, but more academic programs should incorporate culturally relevant curriculum into traditional degree pathways. 

Having culturally relevant content makes higher education in general more relatable to Indigenous students, she added, so they are more likely to go after a degree in the first place. And that in turn helps them get the credentials they need to get jobs when they leave prison.

A Wake-Up Call

While Kaluhiokalani’s path through education has had plenty of detours, a connection to her culture has resonated throughout. When she thinks about her elementary school years, she remembers the kupuna – Native Hawaiian elders – who would visit her school to share their cultural knowledge. 

“Everything that I learned, I held on to …I loved to sing, play the ukulele, and dance hula.”

Kaluhiokalani grew up in Honolulu less than a mile from Waikiki beach, where she learned to surf. 

She associates Waikiki with her father, Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani, who was one of the top young surfers in the United States in the 1970s. As a young teenager, she would hang out with him at the beach and smoke pot. Buttons, too, struggled with addiction throughout his life. 

“I was a surfer, party animal, like my dad,” she said. 

Kaluhiokalani was in and out of prison for most of her 20s and early 30s. Her father’s death in 2013 was a wake-up call, she said, for her to do things differently when she got out. 

The associate in arts degree in Hawaiian Studies that Alisha Kaluhiokalani earned from Windward Community College.

In 2017, Kaluhiokalani was released for the last time. A few years later, she ran into a woman she had been incarcerated with who encouraged her to enroll in college. She immediately signed up at Windward when she found out there was free tuition for Native Hawaiians and she could pursue an associate’s degree in Hawaiian studies. She wanted to use what she learned in her classes to use Native Hawaiian practices to help others in the criminal justice system. 

The Hawaiian language class, and the ukulele in the prison yard, started Kaluhiokalani on a 20-year journey. She earned an associate’s degree last year from Windward and then, this month, she crossed the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Hawaii Manoa.  

This story was co-published by Honolulu Civil Beat.

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.