CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Halawa inmates Brian Miguel, bottom, and Tini Agatonu painted an apartment yesterday at Puahala Homes. Inmates have been landscaping, fixing windows and making minor repairs to vacant units, which will house homeless families.
Inmates rehab apartments
Memories of his childhood flooded through Brian Miguel, 45, as he joined a crew of fellow inmates from Halawa Correctional Facility fixing up public housing apartments for homeless families yesterday.
"I grew up in this housing," he said, pausing as his paint brush left a shiny coat of beige on a concrete block wall. "My grandparents have passed away, but I can hear them saying, 'See, you never like help clean house when you was here -- now you going to clean house!'"
Nine Halawa inmates are spending two weeks on a work detail at Puahala Homes on the slopes of Kamehameha Heights, whacking back overgrowth, cleaning out apartments, fixing windows and toilets, painting walls and scrubbing floors. The first unit Miguel stepped in to renovate was "my very own," he said, although "it used to look a lot bigger."
The Hawaii Public Housing Authority did not have the money or resources to do the job, so it asked the Department of Public Safety for help.
"It gives the inmates a chance to move out into the community and use their skills, and help the homeless at the same time," said Louise Kim McCoy, Public Safety spokeswoman. "It's another avenue of job training."
When the work crew began on Jan. 7, some of the apartments were trashed, crammed with musty furniture, debris, roach droppings and even rotting food in the refrigerator, inmates said. By yesterday, 10 units had been transformed, with clean floors, spotless walls, jalousie windows that actually opened and shiny bathrooms. Unpleasant odors had been replaced by the smell of fresh paint.
"It looked like Hurricane Katrina was in there when we came," said Duane Combis, 48, who was happy to put the plumbing skills he learned in prison to work on the outside. "Look at it now, it's taking shape."
Combis relished the view of the ocean from a three-bedroom unit that he would help renovate, after having his scenery limited for years to just "brush" in Halawa Valley. But he and others said what they most appreciated was the chance to help.
Tini Agatonu, 34, is halfway throu0gh a four-year term at Halawa for drug possession and recently completed a rehabilitation program. He feels a connection to the people living at Puahala Homes now, and the homeless families who will soon move in.
"It feels good to be doing this," said Agatonu, who is married with five children, ages 2 to 16. "I look at it, being from where I was before -- I'm an ex-addict -- it could have been me."
Kaulana Park, leader of the state's multiagency team HEART (Homeless Efforts Achieving Results Together), said the project benefits everyone involved.
"Everybody wins in this case," he said. "Obviously the state wins. The residents will win, and of course the prison work line group wins in time."
Miguel, whose neatly cropped hair now has a few specks of gray, said his grandparents had 14 children who turned out well, but "I chose the bad life and ended up in prison." He has been at Halawa for four years and goes before the parole board in six months.
"I needed help, but I was ashamed to ask for help," he said. "That's what landed me in prison."
Coming back to his childhood home gives him a chance to reach out to other troubled families.
"Maybe all they need is a step up," he said. "Maybe they will feel better about themselves."