Delbert Wakinekona shows his prison tattoos on a beach near his home in Oahu. Photo by Marco Garcia.
A bleak, sweltering prison town in the middle of the Arizona desert is an unlikely destination for incarcerated Hawaiians. But since the 1990s, Saguaro Correctional Facility in Eloy, AZ, has housed more Hawaiians than any other prison in the nation -- including Hawaii's. Delbert Wakinekona was one of the very first Hawaiian prisoners transferred out of state. A notorious escape artist, he was transferred to the mainland in the 1970s and over a period of 40 years, he made his way through a series of prisons, eventually landing in Eloy.
The stark change in landscape, from the islands to the desert, is just part of the shock for prisoners like him. Time and again, studies have shown that contact with friends and family helps to lower recidivism rates, but for many of these Hawaiian prisoners, visitations are an impossibility; a $2,000 trip to a desert penitentiary is a hard financial pill to swallow for most prisoners’ families.
Prison abuse is another issue: in Arizona, allegations that guards have banged prisoners' heads on table tops and forced oral sex upon them have resulted in probation. One 2012 lawsuit brought by five Saguaro prisoners alleges that a guard threatened an inmate by saying, "We will continue to beat you, and the only way to stop is to commit suicide." This year, the families of two men killed by fellow prisoners at the facility have filed separate lawsuits citing similar problems, such as "negligence, recklessness, and a flagrant failure to protect."
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