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by Keone Michaels Mon Apr 23rd, 2007 at 08:30:48 PM EST


She was a big girl. Sunny Keawe was built like a Polynesian goddess. A Hawaiian Queen Latifah, being part Samoan and part Hawaiian and raised in Waianae out in the country on a high protein diet, on canoe practice and hula.

Her curves were large and generous no less woman-like for their size and underlying hard muscle structure. There was that attitude too, like don't you dare give me no shit haole boy or Ill whip your ass good. What? No believe? Come here I'll kick you from here to Waianae!   ...I liked her right at the start.

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Don't get me wrong I'm not talking any sexual stuff. I had no illusion that I would in any way have a boy-girl relationship with this huge woman from the North Shore of Oahu. Its just that me and everyone else acknowledged the part of her that was feminine in nature. It was important to both the administration and the prisoners that she was a female and not a male. A woman, even a strong one like Sunny was less threatening to the warden who in those days was called the administrator or program manager and she was certainly more welcome to the overwhelmingly male prison where the prisoners welcomed any small whiff of woman. Any smell I thought was better than the normal smell you encounter in prisons. The smell being the first thing you notice inside a prison. It is the smell of urine and sweat, throw up, blood, feces and harsh and strong chemical cleansers mixed with the intangibles of death and fear. Especially fear, the smell of fear is deep and thick in prison. Once you smell it you never forget it is stuck somewhere up your nose.

For several years at Kolea Correctional Center I interviewed all visitors because as the education officer one of my duties was to keep track of volunteers and visitor access to the prisoners at a small outer island prison/jail facility and Sunny brought hope to the modules and something to do filling otherwise empty days reading the same books and magazines over and over. Sunny's position was soft money government funded to help educate the ethnic Hawaiians to smooth the way for native prisoners reentry into the community at large. A part of her mandate was to teach Hawaiian history and to foster pride and dignity. That was what she was supposed to do, according to the memo from the bosses in Honolulu.

For the first few years all went well. Several times a year she held well attended seminars, at the day room, inside the modules, open to all prisoners regardless of classification, with no guards and only me, the educational manager, in attendance to monitor her safety. The ultimate reward in prison, extra food, Sunny always brought lemonade and cookies which she gave to the cook to prepare for the break between classes. And at the end she always gave the men a certificate, a pala pala that they proudly took home to their cells. For some of them, it was the first certificate they had ever received. When I first started work with these men I did a survey and found that about 66% of them tested at the six grade or less education level.

At almost every seminar or meeting that she gave at the facility if I had time to interview them and check them out on the computer we also invited "kupuna" or wise Hawaiian old timers from the local community . Once or twice I had some uneasy feelings about visitor identifications that didn't quite jibe but it wasn't until years later when I met one of the named regular attendees that I realized someone else had masqueraded as her, several times under my watchful gaze.

Two or three years progressed this way and Sunny and I got to know each other and worked together. As she taught these men throughout the state about their heritage and rights as Hawaiians, Sunny became more and more polarized and angry. The institutional qualities of her interactions demanded by the prison warders wore on her usually genial disposition. The business of Corrections is a giant equal opportunity grinder of prisoners and warders alike. It ground her down and involved her in conspiracies and relationships she would have otherwise avoided. In addition, she encountered the occupational hazard of radical organizers and workers, the hazard of the `Don Quixote syndrome. Indicative of this syndrome, the always part of always skating out far ahead of the crowd that is so lonely and frustrating to anyone, but so is the constant ridicule and sniping of the opposition aimed directly at the underpinnings of your self esteem. It all takes a toll. After awhile even you judge yourself a fool to be out there without apparent reward and without the satisfaction of any real victory. I watched Sunny Keawe become more and more militant as this process continued. Less and less would she talk about job training and gaining useful skills. Less and less she encouraged the feelings of remorse and guilt so important to inmate control. More and more the word sovereignty became the title and theme song of her presentations.

Several times I had to reject kupuna volunteers she recommended because they were convicted felons. She preached personal and Hawaiian sovereignty. Soon, her interactions with the men began to reflect this bias. The men loved her and hung on her every word and action. As soon as some of the men began to complain that their sovereign rights as Hawaiians were being ignored and when they began using the prison system of written complaint, paperwork that now needed to be answered with paperwork, the guards that had to answer the paperwork really began paying more attention to her lectures.

First the bigger facilities on Oahu and then other outer islander facilities complained about her militant statements, the attitudes supposedly she engendered in the prisoners after her presentations. Sunny was finally officially labeled a troublemaker and despite her Federal moneys, she was banned from some of the jails and prisons in the state system.

But even as we recognized her approaching unwelcome status, we still welcomed Sunny at our facility. My independent and liberal boss, an ex roommate of the then governor, used to be a counselor, now was the prison manager very tolerant and I figured that anything that got the prisoners to read the newspaper instead of watching reruns or some other mindless drivel on the telly was good and productive use of their time. From a lifetime of liberal practice and bias I welcomed her on the basis that any education was better than nothing. Besides I thought, I believe in my own personal sovereignty, don't I? Whatever that means?

A few days before her regularly scheduled presentation my boss took me aside and told me that we had to reign Sunny in or discontinue her visits. The Honolulu administration had recently changed and the corrections program mangers had all been notified that unless she laid off the sovereignty stuff she had to go. Too much trouble. Too much prisoner anxiety left in the wake of her visits. Now they said Sunny created more work for the guards not less. Earlier that month, Sunny had been reprimanded and cautioned by the System educational program manager and told her mandate was to teach integration and reentry into the community not Hawaiian Sovereignty and if she didn't stick to her mandate she would be denied entry to the system. My job I was told was to sit in on her entire presentation and report what she said. I blushed when I realized. I was the rat.

Locked in the day room with 60 or so hard core criminals and one huge Polynesian woman, I sat and listened. Sunny was used to me sitting in on her presentations. At the point her comments started to get too careless and anti-institutional I usually left, discretion I always considered to be the better part of valor. This time as the tone of her talk changed, telegraphing a move to harsher, stronger, more conspiratorial dialog, instead of leaving I stayed. Her body language became agitated and she moved more frequently about the room and despite my presence continued on pell mell her anger and agitation maintaining an inertia of its own. She settled in the opposite corner of the room from my perch on a table top where this day I rudely and on purpose sat, on the same table the prisoners ate their meals. I had the cook position the cart of cookies and aluminum pitchers of cold sweating lemonade by my side, Prison is after all a place where not even the smallest detail is deleted from the bright psychological relief. Lights were turned off in the glassed in control room yet I could spy the gleam of brass as several correctional officers watched and listened to Sunny's presentation.

What compelled my specific comments and my next actions I really don't know. It was like I was blindly following the preordained script fate had written previously for me. I was an actor speaking the words on a very volatile stage. When Sunny finished stirring the entitlement broth and asked for questions, I spoke up precipitously from across the room. It was nasty politics. It was sabotage. Her big brown eyes stabbed back at me. Now I don't recall the exact words I used but I remember all the black hair angry heads black eyes swivel to me as I politely if effetely inquired perhaps in the scheme of conflict and environmental problems in the world today, specific issues of Hawaiian Sovereignty might just be a little irrelevant in the overall scheme of things? It was like the world stood still, a prison day room commercial on television, for the inmates froze and held their breath as she locked eyes with me and walked the 40 or 50 feet between us.

When she reached my side she leaned over and clasped me in a warm embrace. I was conscious of her soft breasts pressed against my shoulder. Her warm words came out her breath next to my ear and Sunny retold and reinterpreted to our audience of violent men what I said. She said my words had embraced the cause and I should be supported. She spoke of how I endorsed what Hawaiian Sovereignty meant and generally what a great bruddah I was. She stood now beside me, I still sat on the table top, an absolute puppet and embarrassingly aware of her breasts now next to my face as she continued to cuddle me and talk whatever shit came in to her head.

Despite my obvious compromised position incredibly my first impulse was to open my mouth and tell everyone she had stupidly misinterpreted what I meant to say. I opened my mouth to do so and I looked up sidelong into her eyes as Sunny's fingers pressed with incredible pain and pressure and strength into my shoulder. I knew then she had known my measure from the start. As I hopped off the table top I understood what I had to say.

"Cookies and lemonade gentlemen?"

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I've been thinking a lot about the individual and the collective these days.  This was the first time I really realized that our personal sovereignty has many limits too.

by Keone Michaels on Mon Apr 23rd, 2007 at 08:35:02 PM EST
Having lived for almost 5 years in Hawaii in the 70s, your post attracts me...I will take time to read it through slowly. Thank you!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Tue Apr 24th, 2007 at 08:30:26 AM EST

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