Can Prison Be a Healing Place?
Why the warden of Hawaii’s only women’s prison creates a sanctuary for its residents
by Sarah van Gelder from YES! magazine
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.
“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.
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