Women  of  Hawaii
Challenges. Changes. Courage.
Day 5: Behind Bars

Kelly Sussell, an inmate at the Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua, weeps as she talks about being away from her children. "I want to have visits with them," she says. "I really, really miss them a lot, but the younger ones wouldn't deal with it too well. It could traumatize them."

Women often benefit
little in a prison
made for men

Driven in part by the "ice" age,
the number of female inmates has
grown 25-fold in 25 years as
critics demand alternatives

» Tonight on KITV


What if they cry? Or say they want to stay?

Or hold on tight -- what if they won't let go?

Kelly Sussell blinks and licks away a tear. Nine kids visiting her in this place? With its barbed wire, its guards and fences, its rules and closeness, its colors -- sand brown, faded teal and chocolate. Better for them to stay home, with ma in Pupukea. The littlest one, an infant, with a stranger in town.

"I want to have visits with them," Sussell whispers, resting her chin in her hands and gazing -- almost dreamily -- at the ceiling, as if imagining her children's faces. "I really, really miss them a lot, but the younger ones wouldn't deal with it too well. It could traumatize them."

The 32-year-old, with long, wavy hair kept at bay behind her shoulders, sits back to adjust her blue prisoner's uniform, fiddling with the knee patch that bears her name. For five months, Sussell has been serving time at the Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua.

She is like so many other incarcerated women in the islands: a drug addict who broke the law to support her habit, a native Hawaiian, a mother.

In 1972 there was only one female offender behind bars in Hawaii. In 1980 there were 30. Twenty-five years later the number of women in prison is 25 times larger -- and it is continuing to grow, while the amount of prison space stays the same.

Today, there are 758 Hawaii women inmates housed in state and mainland prisons, a 22 percent increase from 2001, according to state Department of Public Safety statistics. The alarming growth rate is twice as high as men's in Hawaii and higher than the national average.

Since the 1980s, when the numbers of women getting into crime first started dramatically increasing, prisoners' advocates in Hawaii and around the country have been pushing for alternatives to prison for nonviolent female offenders like Sussell, citing promising statistics that show therapeutic work furlough programs that stress counseling and re-entry into the community are more likely to stop women from re-offending once they get out.

"Women have different needs and differing pathways to crime," said Lorraine Robinson, executive director of just such a women-only program in Kalihi. "The prison sentence has been set up for violent, antisocial men."

State public safety officials, though, say they are more inclined to stick with traditional prisons for women, and have plans to send as many as 50 more female inmates to mainland facilities this year.

There are already 80 women at Brush Correctional Facility in Colorado, and 381 are incarcerated at the women's facility in Kailua, which was built to house 268.

Authorities and offenders' advocates do agree on one thing: The fast-paced growth rate of the female offender population shows no signs of slowing down, and Hawaii will have to decide -- fairly soon -- how to best deal with the problem, which appears worse than in the rest of the nation.

"If I had drugs, I had a place to sleep. If I had drugs, I had friends," said Priscilla Smiles, an inmate at Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua.

In 2001, according to the latest federal data available, 11 percent of inmates in the islands were women, the highest female-to-male offender proportion in the country. Also, 69 out of every 100,000 women in Hawaii are incarcerated -- a rate higher than 36 other states.

"It's something that's going to require a long-term solution," said Frank Lopez, interim director of the state Department of Public Safety and deputy director of the corrections division. "Women have their own issues that need to be addressed. There's a lot of victimization issues that are involved."

Lawmakers have been looking at this issue while also debating the ethics and social costs of sending Hawaii inmates -- male or female -- to the mainland.

In 2004, legislators passed a resolution asking the state Public Safety Department to submit a plan for creating a "gender-responsive" environment at the Women's Correctional Center.

The department was to come up with programs to deal with substance abuse treatment, parenting and marketable job skill development, and also provide a time line for their implementation. In a four-page report released in January, department officials listed the current programs offered to female offenders in the Kailua facility and said they had no plans to offer more.

"The programs that we have available are already addressing the issues," said Women's Correctional Center Warden Francis Sequeira. "There really wasn't a need to have anything more."

Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D-Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Poamoho), who drafted the resolution, agreed. He said the report shows that the department is already doing enough to help accommodate and rehabilitate female offenders. But that suggestion made Kat Brady giggle.

"The system is so dysfunctional because it's designed mainly to punish and isolate," said Brady, director of the Community Alliance on Prisons. "Reintegration is the huge missing piece."

She said the state should pay more attention to one-of-a-kind, relatively successful programs like Ka Hale Ho'ala Hou No Na Wahine, Robinson's 36-bed work furlough facility.

Sixty-eight percent of female inmates who go through Ka Hale stay out of trouble after release, compared with just 33 percent among female offenders at other state correctional facilities, Robinson said. Lawmakers were asked in 2004 to nearly double the program's capacity with an $800,000 appropriation, but instead allocated $100,000 to pay for four new spots.

At the facility on a recent afternoon, 33-year-old Ronnye Rickard has just gotten back from her job downtown. She sits in an air-conditioned room, trying to cool down. While she waits, she takes out of a tiny, worn photo of her son tucked in her pocket calendar.

"We have an excellent relationship," says Rickard, who was incarcerated in 2003 at WCCC and has three months left at the work furlough program. She adds, softly, "We have a brother-sister relationship. He was raised by my parents."

Women behind bars

Who makes up the female prison population in Hawaii?

» Native Hawaiians: Forty-four percent of female offenders, compared with 37 percent of men in prison, are native Hawaiian. Only 9.4 percent of the state's total population is native Hawaiian. Twenty-seven percent of female offenders are white, 10 percent are Filipino and 4 percent are Japanese.

» Mothers: About 60 percent of female offenders have children. There are more than 1,000 Hawaii children who have mothers in prison.

» Drug or property offenders: Thirty-five percent of Hawaii's female inmate population were convicted on drug offenses, while 35 percent are behind bars for property crimes. Fourteen percent are in prison for failing to follow the terms of their probation, and 13 percent were convicted for violent offenses.

Source: State Department of Public Safety

Rickard's 17-year-old visits her every weekend. They chat and make plans for the future, imagining a life without drugs. Rickard started using crystal methamphetamine when she was her son's age.

His father introduced her to the drug, and she was hooked, later finding a steady supply from a string of abusive boyfriends. Before long she started stealing from her parents to support her habit. Then, she got into crime. Eventually, she was convicted of theft, forgery and drug promotion.

Now, she is sober. She has goals. And she has guilt -- about not being there for her son, about never really mourning her parents' deaths. Rickard's "greatest teacher" is her 17-year-old, who lauds her sobriety and wears "no hope in dope" T-shirts when he visits.

"He even trusts me -- even me," she said, wiping tears from her cheeks and tucking his photo away.

Seventy percent of Hawaii's female offenders are serving time for drugs or property crimes, many of which are related to drugs. Meanwhile, the percentage of Hawaii women in prison for violent crimes has steadily decreased, from 21 percent in 2001 to 13 percent in 2005.

Robinson said women turn to drugs to "self-medicate" -- get through domestic violence or past a sexual assault. She and Sequeira, at the women's prison, agree that the boom in the female offender population is likely linked to the islands' crystal methamphetamine epidemic, mandatory minimums and increased surveillance of drugs by law enforcement.

"IF I HAD DRUGS, I had a place to sleep," said Priscilla Smiles, throwing back her ponytail and crossing her hands on her lap. "If I had drugs, I had friends."

Smiles quit using crystal meth when she found out she was pregnant. She has been clean since. But before she gave up the drug, she sold some to an undercover police officer.

In April, on the day she was due to check into WCC, she dropped off her 2-year-old son at a friend's house, kissed him goodbye and went to get a tattoo of his name on her back.

She shows it off with pride, runs her finger along an old English-style "K" -- for Kalii -- and says, resolutely, that she wants to be a good mother.

Her little one comes to the prison as often as possible, so often that he stands to be searched -- arms out and legs apart -- before being asked. She cried and laughed when her ex-boyfriend told her that.

Smiles was abandoned by her mother at Los Angeles Airport when she was 17. She became a street kid and was so heavily into drugs for so long that she cannot remember how she got to Hawaii, though she suspects it was with a man.

"Sobriety is something you really, really have to want," she said after pausing for a moment to think. "I'm OK today. For the first time, I realize that I don't have to be a victim."

Smiles rubs her cheek, where there's a blue streak of paint from a kid-friendly renovation of the facility's visiting area. She and a few other inmates have banded together to create a place at the prison where kids can play when they come.

A place where both mother and child can forget where they are, if only for a little while.

Most Hawaii female offenders, nearly 60 percent, are mothers. Many were caring for their children before they went into prison, according to state statistics.

And that, says University of Hawaii women's studies professor Meda Chesney-Lind, is one of the big reasons female offenders need to be treated differently from men.

"If you are attempting to reintegrate women back into the community, you're going to have to deal with their problems as women and as mothers," she said. "You want there to be justice, and justice means you don't treat women as if they're men."

The state does have programs aimed at keeping or reconnecting ties between mothers and children. The women's prison, for example, has Kids Day, which offers offenders extended time with their children, mother-child reading programs and parenting classes, Sequeira said, adding that many women do not want to have a connection with their children.

"A lot of times, the mother has just given up custody," he said.

Sussell, the inmate with nine children, does not have custody of any of her kids. Her grandmother has eight of them, ages 18, 15, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 and 5. Her 7-month-old is in foster care, but her mother on the mainland is trying to get guardianship.

Every other day, Sussell gets a 15-minute telephone call to tell her children she loves them. The kids line up to talk to her, each trying to push their way ahead of the others. "They're very proud of me for taking care of it (her drug addiction)," she said. "Now, they don't have to worry about me, too."

Sussell is behind bars for theft. She has about a year left in prison before she will check into Sand Island Treatment Center to get past her craving for crystal methamphetamine and alcohol. Prison has been hard on her -- a hardened woman who lost her house to drugs, who lived in an abusive relationship for a decade, who fears her mistakes will forever haunt her children.

"At times, I get up at night because it's hard to sleep," she says, her voice quaking. "I feel guilty and ashamed for all the things I've done."

Other women at the prison cannot sleep, either. They gather around in a circle some evenings, Sussell says, talking about their children and their families fondly. "Some of them are in here for a real long time," she said. "They say they could have done things better."

A FEW YEARS AGO, there were plans to expand the women's facility in Kailua. But those have all but died, given tight funding and protest from nearby residents.

The state started sending women to mainland prisons in 1997. And there are no plans to bring the inmates back, despite strong opposition from prisoners' advocates and some families. Even Lopez said he "would prefer" to manage the state's prison population locally.

Instead, the women housed at the Colorado facility will be moved to a women's prison in Kentucky next month, said Shari Kimoto, state Public Safety Department mainland branch administrator.

The state did not renew its contract with Brush correctional facility because of a series of contract disputes along with sexual misconduct charges, which allege guards at the prison had sex with six inmates, four of whom were from Hawaii.

Advocates say sending inmates, especially women, to mainland prisons almost certainly ensures they will have limited contact with family members, including children. "It's really hard for women to be on the mainland," said Chesney-Lind, also a criminologist who has written several books on female offenders. "This is not the way to do it. We should be ashamed of ourselves."

Connie Aragona, who has 16-year-old daughter in Hawaii, has been behind bars on the mainland since 2003 -- first in Oklahoma, then in Colorado. She has little contact with her daughter, who is in a foster home, and only recently was able to set up a teleconferencing call.

"It's so hard with a kid," said Aragona in a phone interview from the Brush prison facility. In 2001, Aragona was found guilty on robbery, kidnapping and theft charges after she forced the owner of a Kahuku shrimp wagon to sign the business over to her at gunpoint.

Once a month, female prisoners on the mainland can use videoconferencing to see the faces of their children or spouses, as most families cannot afford to fly to the mainland for visits.

Phone calls, meanwhile, are expensive: Inmates usually call families collect, said Brady, of the Community Alliance, and the Brush correctional facility charges $5.31 for the first minute and 89 cents for every additional minute.

Kimoto, of the mainland branch, said it is sometimes for the best that female offenders are unable to contact their family members.

"While they were committing their offenses, they did not have their family's interests at heart," she said, adding that many inmates need time away from their children or spouses to address addictions.

Tracking Time
1961 ~ 1970

Key dates in women's empowerment in Hawaii:

» 1963: Helene Hale became the state's first female mayor when she was elected on the Big Island.

» 1965: Patsy Takemoto Mink, left, became both the first Hawaii and Japanese-American woman in Congress.

» 1968: Gladys Ainoa Brandt, right, became the first female director of Kamehameha Schools' high school.

» 1968: Mary George was the first woman elected to the Honolulu City Council.


Tonight on KITV 4 News at 10 ...

KITV 4 Females make up nearly 14 percent of the state's inmate population. Tonight at 10, Paula Akana has the story of one woman's challenge to change her life behind bars.



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