Iwalani Carroll-Vierra, seen here inside the inmate visitation room at the Otter Creek Correctional Facility in Wheelwright, Ky., is one of 119 inmates from Hawaii, all women, held in the prison in Floyd County.
Far from home
Isle women imprisoned on the mainland face additional tolls
WHEELWRIGHT, Ky. » Sitting in a prison cell in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Deenie Tanele is a long way from home.
Tanele, 33, is one of 119 inmates from Hawaii -- all women -- held in the Otter Creek Correctional Center in Floyd County as part of a contract between the state of Hawaii and the private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America.
"It is like a double punishment," said Tanele, who has been locked up since 1999 for smoking and selling crystal methamphetamine, and will serve out her term until 2009.
Hawaii officials said they made the deal to house inmates at Otter Creek and other mainland prisons because of severe prison crowding in their native state and because incarcerating inmates on the mainland saves Hawaii money.
It costs $56 per day to house each inmate off the islands, compared with $110 in Hawaii.
Hawaii has been sending prisoners to the mainland for a decade. Nearly half of all its 3,858 inmates are lodged in rural Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky -- all in prisons owned by Corrections Corporation of America.
The Nashville, Tenn.-based company said it has saved Hawaii $158 million since 1998. But prisoner-rights advocates in Hawaii say the economic savings come with an emotional toll for the inmates and their families.
"The cost per bed may be cheaper, but not when you include the cost of broken families," said Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons in Honolulu. "It is hard for a woman to come home after three or five or 10 years and say, 'I'm your mom,' when her child has never been able to visit her."
Shari Kimoto, who runs the mainland branch of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, said the agency has no other options but to send the women out of state because Hawaii residents do not want prisons built in their back yards, and the remaining open areas that can still be developed are prized for resorts.
Hawaii prisoners have been held at Otter Creek since September, when CCA reopened it as a women's prison after a riot in July 2001; the facility also holds 399 Kentucky women.
About half the women are serving time for using and selling crystal methamphetamine -- known as "ice" -- which swept through the islands in the 1990s.
Along with incarceration, the women must adjust to cultural differences, new rules and the weather. The average February temperature in Wheelwright is 35 degrees, compared with 73 in Honolulu.
"The cold is unbelievable," said Iwalani Carroll-Vierra, 27.
Catherine Samuel, 65, who is serving 20 years to life for murder, said guards have confused a hand symbol that signifies good luck in Hawaii with a gang sign.
But the Hawaii inmates have won some concessions in diet and cultural activities. Prisoners are served rice at least once a day and fresh fruit at least once a week. They also may practice hula and other native dances for one hour twice a week, and they will be allowed to celebrate King Kamehameha Day each June 11.
There is also the separation from family and friends. Most will never get a visitor, no matter how long they are incarcerated.
Lorraine Robinson, director of a Honolulu-based program -- Ka Hale Ho'ala Hou No Na Wahine ("home of reawakening for women") -- that helps female inmates re-enter civilian life, said being so far from home makes it hard for the women at Otter Creek to hold out hope.
Emerald Nakamura, 26, of Honolulu, who is serving five years for forging checks, sees her 20-month old son, Ikaika, once a month -- on a video screen. She said he does not recognize her.
"It is very sad," she said. "I think about him all the time."
Norma Tanele, mother of Deenie, said her inability to pay her phone bill means that her line has been blocked from receiving calls from the prison for two years.