Hawaiian inmates celebrate Makahiki at correctional facility in Eloy
Hawaiian prisons saw a population increase of more than 600% between 1978 and 2018. This explosion in incarceration numbers led the state to contract with a private prison company to house Hawaiian inmates at CoreCivic facilities.
Beginning in 2007, many of these inmates were housed in the newly built Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy — about an hour southeast of Phoenix. Today, there are more than 1,000 Hawaiian inmates residing at Saguaro.
Every year, the Hawaiian inmates observe Makahiki — the Hawaiian New Year festival.
On a cold February morning, the participants leave the prison chapel in a ritual procession up a sidewalk and into a rec yard surrounded by a chain link fence, topped with razor wire.
And as the sun peaks above the horizon, two inmates mark the daybreak with large conch shells.
Eric Kalani Vance was given a life sentence for robbery and murder. He is now serving out his time in Arizona. Vance has been an inmate at Saguaro since the prison opened.
“Makahiki is a celebration lasting roughly four months,” he said. “Opening season is in November, so we open Makahiki in November and it closes in mid-February. And it’s to honor the god Lono — to celebrate Lono.”
As a senior member of Saguaro’s Hawaiian community, Vance takes the lead in organizing the Makahiki ceremonies. The ritual involves chanting, dancing and games of physical and mental skill.
“Games is done year round, but come Makahiki, people bring their best,” he said.
In the rec yard, the ceremony has begun. One by one, inmates brave the freezing morning air, clad only in kihei, the Hawaiian shawls worn by men. Many have traditional Pacific tattoos covering large swaths of their skin. They approach Vance and present offerings of palm leaves to Lono.
As the morning progresses, the prison begins to awaken. Other inmates are pushing large tubs of laundry and squeegeeing the previous night’s rain from the walkways. But their focus is on the ceremony in the fenced-in rec yard. Some stop to observe. Others go about their chores.
Shawn Wead is the warden of the Saguaro Correctional Center. He explained how CoreCivic worked with the Hawaiian community to develop the prison’s Makahiki celebration:
“We worked with the Hawaii department of Public Safety and found out about some of the practices they were doing in the facilities in Hawaii ... and then they had some spiritual advisors that helped the chaplain facilitate it,” he said.
Wead is very supportive of the Makahiki celebrations — he says he’s pushed for this and other cultural traditions to be practiced at Saguaro Correctional: “It’s such a positive thing for the native group and it allows them to stay connected to their family and to their identity and we think that’s one of the number one keys to helping with recidivism - is to keep that connection to your identity, to your native culture and to the island.”
Back in the rec yard, about 20 inmates are standing in two lines, still dressed in traditional robes with wreaths of tea leaves on their heads and garlands around their necks, wrists and ankles. The rising sun is warming the morning air.
The ceremony lasts about an hour and after the traditional rituals conclude, the participants break into groups and mingle with the observers. A couple of ukeleles appear, a bass guitar is plugged in and a party begins in the prison yard:
The celebration continues into the early afternoon - and then it’s back to business as usual. Vance says every year, a few new inmates transfer in from Hawaii - and they bring new opportunities to teach young Hawaiians the Makahiki traditions. For many, Saguaro is their first exposure to Makahiki, despite a lifetime spent on the islands.
“When guys come in here, who haven’t done this kind of stuff — learning chants and oohlies, traditional kaihiko dances and stuff — they really love it and like it when they come here,” Vance said.
Makahiki is over for this year, but this summer Vance and the other Hawaiian inmates will start preparing for the next celebration in late October. For now, they will have the memories of the Makahiki to remind them of their tropical island home while they serve their time in the Arizona desert.