Inmates at the women's prison find peace through poetry
IN A DREARY prison classroom whose walls block the outside world, women in blue scrub uniforms are chiseling through barriers of their own, with pen in hand.
"When you get to the place where it hurts, you have to write through the pain," urged their teacher, 'Ilima Stern, "because that's when it has the most meaning."
This creative writing class at the Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua goes beyond the basic skills usually covered in prison coursework. It focuses on transformation, or "Hulihia." And the poetry that emerges from these inmates' hands deserves to be heard outside the prison's walls, their teachers believe.
The students recently published their first literary journal, the 56-page "Hulihia," and a second is in the offing. The next issue will feature images donated by artist Dietrich Varez, who grew up in Kailua and now lives in Volcano, and was impressed with the first edition.
The 10-week class helps inmates come to grips with the issues that brought them to jail in the first place, giving them an outlet for their emotions and a haven for reflection. Guided by volunteer teachers Pat Clough and Stern, the students look inside themselves as well as beyond the walls that confine them.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua has a creative writing class that now puts out a journal. Pat Clough, left, and Ilima Stern teach the inmates. Seated at the table are, clockwise from top left, Jamila Weaver, Queenie Park, Michele Hahn and Eden Iha. CLICK FOR LARGE
"The prison may have my body, but they don't have my mind," said Michele Hahn, her dark, tousled hair falling around her shoulders. "'Ilima's class has made me do a lot of soul searching."
"I used to blame my mom (for my mistakes)," she said. "But just because I was brought up that way doesn't mean I have to live that way. I made the choice to pick up the pipe and smoke. I chose to be with my boyfriend."
Hahn, who came to jail pregnant and had to give up her baby, now hopes to become a domestic violence counselor. "I have inner peace with myself for the first time in a long time," she said.
Clough started the class two years ago after seeing women prisoners landscaping a hillside in Lanikai, where she lives. A longtime teacher, she felt drawn to help them and was surprised by the depth of what they had to offer her.
"I had no idea how forgotten and abandoned they feel there, not just by society, often by their families," said Clough, a trim, sincere woman. "They've burnt bridges. Now they're rediscovering their voices and somebody's listening. They are a teacher's dream, they truly are. They are so eager. And do they ever have something to say."
Missing teeth testify to a life on the streets for Mary Kanuha, a heroin addict who said she learned her numbers at age 4 on the Big Island by counting papers of dope. She began using drugs when she was 9 and went on to have children of her own, one of whom followed her into drug abuse and prison.
Her poem, "Family Ties," begins with these words:
Born to mother, junkie wild
Raised in darkness, hate and pain
Mommie Dearest, Bitch Insane
Schooled in violence, honor roll
Made a deal and sold her soul ...
Kanuha, 52, has been in and out of prison most of her life. In Clough's creative writing class, she has found hope even in her darkest moments.
"I have a problem behaving," Kanuha said with a wan smile. "I was in six months straight of lockdown time. Pat communicated with me by mail, let me keep up with the class. She's been a mentor to me and an inspiration to me."
Clough started the class with 10 women two years ago, and enrollment soon doubled. Because she spends part of each year in Palo Alto, Clough asked Stern, her kumu hula, to share teaching duties. About 70 students have taken the classes so far, with some coming back for more than one session.
"The discovery that goes on in this class, for self change, for self reflection, is just awesome," said Maureen Tito, corrections education program manager for the state. "That's what makes this unique."
The class has been a lifeline for Jamila Weaver, who was sent to prison for robbery and hopes to get into a drug rehabilitation program.
"I was deep down in depression, I wanted to kill myself," she said. "Writing has helped me come out of a lot of things. It's hard to talk about my pain and my failures. Writing helps me. When it's down in writing, you feel good because it's all off your chest."
When several students got shipped to a prison in Kentucky, Clough did not let go. She is working with them long-distance, sending writing assignments back and forth by mail, giving them a connection to home.
The first edition of "Hulihia" was 300 copies, and Clough had another 100 copies printed last month, with money from an award she received from Soroptimist International of Windward Oahu for her volunteer work. Hulihia recently received a $700 donation toward its next edition from the Henry and Colene Wong Foundation, after Colene Wong read a copy.
It is seeking more sponsors, since prison regulations prevent sale of the journal.
"Jail's a very hard place to feel good about yourself," said Priscilla Smiles, 28, who landed at WCCC for selling drugs. "Everybody's dealing with their own demons."
"There are times when the walls feel like they're caving in on you," she said. "You look for a way out. This class provides that outlet. I've worked very hard to turn my life around."
A dance of danger and intrigue
He's stepping up the speed.
He is like a weed in my garden
Ready to devour and overpower,
A soul so sour.
He does! He makes me cower.
He takes me on this deadly dance,
He puts me in a trance.
He makes me feel that I cannot leave.
He always has something up his sleeve.
I know that I must cleave
This man from my life.
But the dance is hypnotic.
Sometimes I think I want it.
My step falters. I step back,
He firms his grip
Digging his fingers in my hip.
He wants his sip,
A sip of my soul
To rob me
To make me feel not whole.
-- by Shanna Kekahuna
In my life, I've come across many stop signs.
Sometimes I stop.
Sometimes I just run right through them.
Maybe I need to yield
before I come to that final stop sign.
-- by Lyla
(last name withheld by request)
Source: "Hulihia," Writings from the Women's Community Correctional Center, Kailua, Hawaii