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Leaving the Pu’uhonua

Posted on October 3, 2013

Welcome to our new friends from Washington State.  We had a great HIV Medical Case Management Certificate last week.  Also welcome to our new friends from Colorado Springs.  What an amazing conference on Monday!  I’m in Nashville right now and just had a great training at Safe Haven Homeless Shelter with homeless providers from around Nashville.  Today and tomorrow, I have the honor of facilitating the National Health Care for the Homeless Leadership Summit.  Been a great stretch of trainings and facilitations the last three week and I can’t express how lucky I feel to have worked with you all.

When we last left the Pu’uhonua we were focusing on the healing of the individual.  With the rituals and ceremony complete, the healer’s final task was to help integrate the individual back into the community which rejected them in the first place.  Like many things about the Pu’uhonua the details of this reentry is lost to history and speculations. This act of reintegration must have been, and still can be, one of the most difficult aspects of the healing process.
The healer had the task of helping the individual reestablish themselves in a community that just a few days earlier was trying to capture and possibly kill them.  I see two critical aspects of this process.  First, how was the healer able to get the individual to forgive and then integrate into their community, despite having been in mortal danger from that community just days before.  Second, how was the healer able to transform the individual in the eyes of the community, from being a threat, to being an accepted member?
Our brains struggle to change threats to friends in such a small space of time.  We hold grudges and adopt ”them verse us” mindsets to protects our own safety.  We assume that past threats are also present and future threats (taking my shoes off at the airport reminded me of that this morning).  Our question is, what could the healer have done to overpower the natural urge to isolate and discriminate against those we perceive have caused us harm?
As our previous post discussed the Pu’uhonua received its power from both the state and the spirituality of the Hawaiian people.  Let’s end our conversation of the Pu’uhonua with my original inspiration, the Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCCC) and Warden Mark Kawika Patterson’s work.   
The WCCC looks like many other prisons I have visited.  It has high fences, barbed wire and the same drab government architecture.  It does help that this is set in the beautiful mountains outside Honolulu, but make no mistake, Warden Patterson runs a prison.  Like the Pu’uhonua the WCCC gets much of its power from the state.  The state provides funds, provides prisoners who have broken our modern taboos, and gives the WCCC its funding to hire staff and operate the facility. 
My experience working with the criminal justice system has taught me that the power of the state to punish does little to change people.  Those I have known who are transformed in prison settings do so in spite of the punishment and dangers of being a prisoner.  They found something during their sentence that transformed them in much the way an individual must have been transformed inside the Pu’uhonua.
The women I talked to in the WCCC had found a sanctuary and refuge in the mountains.  Patterson and his staff offer a variety of healing experiences for the women.  These include traditional practices such as hula dancing; intensive drug and mental health counselling; drama therapy where women act out their stories that often contain recreations of their past domestic violence; gardening where they reconnect to nature; and opportunities for spiritual growth.  The WCCC offers a true opportunity for women to heal on many different levels.
The women I talked to were truly transformed by this experience.  They spoke with passion about their spiritual journeys within the prison walls, and how the programs at the WCCC had helped them develop strengths that they never imagined lay within them.  At one point in my visit I actually forgot I was in a prison talking to women who had committed serious crimes.  Listening to the stories and the passion of these women in this beautiful place connected me to a sense of the Pu’uhonua in a very powerful way. They had shown me their sanctuary that was so much more powerful and real than the barbed wire outside.
I realized that Warden Patterson had not only created a Pu’uhonua, he was transforming prisoners into healers.  He was not releasing criminals, rather some of the strongest women I have ever met. These women were committed to reentering their communities as role models and citizens. The transformation showed that the Pu’uhonua now lived within them and not as something external or far away. 
This leaves us one last puzzle of the Pu’uhonua. How does the community forgive and accept the individual back as a member. At the WCCC, visitation takes place a little different than in other prisons I have visited.  The community came to the women.  Visits were not in dull rooms with tables as barriers between people, but were held in more personal settings outside.  Warden Patterson showed us videos of the women reconnecting with their children and families.  This was one of the most heartbreaking and emotional parts of our visit.  Young children, now being raised by family members or foster care systems, often were scared or did not recognize their mothers at first.  Slowly through activities and chances to spend real time in natural settings, you could see the bond being created or reestablished.  It was like seeing childhood attachment occur in front of your eyes.
The threats mentioned above lost their power as families worked through their issues and members of the community volunteered to run programs for the women.  The WCCC heals through bringing the community to the women.  There are still fences and barriers separating the inside of the prison from the world.  However, Warden Patterson has found ways to make these barriers transparent, lessening the barriers between the women and the community, and actually allowing the community to be a key part of the healing process. 

Make no mistake, the women I spoke to have difficult challenges in front of them.  For many the WCCC has been the safest place they have ever lived. As those who left the Pu’uhonua in earlier times, these women still face communities and families that may see them as threats.  The women will have to prove themselves while maintaining their sobriety and reestablishing life with a criminal record.  We might stack the deck against the women, but after speaking to them and seeing the power they have developed in themselves, I have little doubt that they will be the next generations of healers carrying the Pu’uhonua into their communities and families for generations to come.

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