Sunday, December 23, 2001

Denise Kainoa Pokipala read Christmas cards yesterday along with her daughter, Sadie Matilda Pokipala. The cards were sent from Pokipala's husband, who is incarcerated at Halawa Correctional Center. On Christmas Day, they both plan to make a special visit to the prison.

Holiday spirit
struggles past
prison bars

An isle family copes with incarceration
that's more painful during Christmas

By Debra Barayuga

The holidays aren't the same in the Pokipala household.

There's no more shopping together, attending midnight Mass or driving to Kahaluu to be with family. Not since three years ago when Denise Pokipala's husband went to prison.

This Christmas Day, while other families will be opening presents together, Pokipala and her youngest daughter will be waiting in line at Halawa Correctional Center for their chance to visit Daddy.

The Pokipalas are among hundreds of families in the state who will make the trek Christmas Day and on the weekend to visit loved ones incarcerated in Hawaii's prisons.

"It's tough," said Bruce Spencer, acting volunteer services administrator at the Department of Public Safety.

There's a perception that something's wrong with the family when one of its members is sent to prison, Spencer said. Innocent family members are seen as guilty by association.

Depression sets in. Kids are constantly asking about the incarcerated parent and get teased by other children about it. Family members experience terrible shame over having to explain that a loved one is in prison, he said.

"To have someone not there is like having someone die during the year and it's the first Christmas without them," Spencer said.

As of last week, there were 5,133 prisoners in Hawaii's correctional facilities, including 1,252 in four mainland facilities.

Pokipala said her husband admits that he's at fault for breaking up the family and the only way she's been able to forgive him is because she's found God.

While the family has visited him in prison before, this time of year is especially stressful, Pokipala said.

Her daughters asks her constantly when Daddy is coming home and why he isn't home to celebrate the holidays, Pokipala said. "They, and even I, feel lost without Daddy home. It hurts all of us right now."

With Pokipala collecting Social Security benefits after being involved in a car accident three years ago and her daughter receiving welfare benefits, money is tight. Fortunately, someone adopted their family for Christmas and purchased a tree and gifts, she said.

The families who hurt even more are those who have loved ones imprisoned on the mainland, said Anna Sua, a founder of Kako'o 'Ohana Pa'ahao, a support group that helps families of inmates.

Most families can't afford to fly to the mainland to visit incarcerated loved ones, she said. Inmates can call out, but it can get expensive for families already hurting financially to get stuck with the long-distance phone bill.

Roland Kauanui recalls his parents having to dish out $30 per 20-minute phone call when he was housed in prisons in Texas and Minnesota over seven years.

"Mainland was really hard for me and everybody there," said the former inmate who spent a total of 15 years behind bars and finally got out last July. "You cry because nobody can call you and you don't get nothing for Christmas like you would usually get."

Letters can take sometimes up to two weeks to arrive. If inmates earn money in prison or families send them money, they could purchase sweet bread or macadamia nuts from the commissary during the holidays, he said. Those without money went without.

Even celebrating New Year's wasn't the same. "You can smell the smoke, but no see nothing," he said.

Families who have loved ones in prison undergo inconveniences others would never dream about, said Kauanui, whose son is currently serving time at Halawa.

When families visit the prison, they have to undergo pat searches and follow strict rules during visits, or else won't be allowed in.

"It's like putting them in prison," he said.

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