ELOY, Ariz. — On the outskirts of this dusty, rural town southeast of Phoenix, Mahealani Meheula peers out from her rental car window at neatly planted rows of palm trees alongside the road. Amid a landscape of saguaro cactuses and low shrubs, the trees — apparently a nursery — are an unexpected reminder of Hawaii, her home nearly 3,000 miles away.

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“Look around,” says Meheula, who is of Native Hawaiian descent and was born and raised in Honolulu. “This is not us.”

Yet she is on her seventh trip to the Arizona desert, driving to a massive concrete complex of four private prisons, including the Saguaro Correctional Center.

Making a trans-Pacific pilgrimage, which Meheula can usually afford to do once a year, is the only way for her to see her boyfriend, Kelena Neula, who is locked up at Saguaro. Neula is among the nearly 1,400 Hawaii prisoners — almost a quarter of the state’s overall inmate population — who are housed an ocean away because in-state prisons are too packed.

After decades of tough-on-crime policies, Hawaii is one of four states that solve their prison crowding problem by shipping inmates out of state, usually to facilities run by for-profit companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group. California prisoners go to Arizona and to the Mississippi Delta; Vermont prisoners go to a remote corner of Michigan; and Arkansas prisoners go to Texas. The U.S. Virgin Islands also sends its prisoners away, to Florida, Arizona and Virginia. Often, the best-behaving prisoners — those with no disciplinary record, escape history or medical issues — are the most likely to be sent far from home.

cca saguaro prison mahealani

Clockwise from top left: March 3, 11:10 a.m. HST: Mahealani Meheula and her brother Harold at the Hawaiian Airlines terminal at Honolulu International Airport; March 4, 10:15 p.m. MST: Meheula, Harold and their mother, Viviana, arrive at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport; March 5, 12:05 a.m. MST: They check in at Casa Grande Holiday Inn in Casa Grande, a desert town about 50 miles southeast of Phoenix. It took them nearly an hour to find their way to the hotel from the airport in their rented SUV.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In all, more than 7,200 state prisoners across the nation are housed this way. That number may rise if Washington state follows through on a contract to send its overflow inmates to a GEO facility in Michigan or if North Dakota sends inmates to a CCA facility in Colorado, which the corrections director there has said is a possibility within the next few months.

For the disproportionately low-income families with loved ones in prison, traveling out of state presents a host of logistical and financial challenges. Meheula, 52, estimates the average cost of visiting Saguaro by herself is $1,000 to $1,200, or about six months of her savings. “I know they’re incarcerated, and they’ve got to do time; I get that,” Meheula said. “But it’s unjust for them to be so far.”

Meheula’s nephew, Kealiiokalani Meheula, is also incarcerated at Saguaro, where he is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.

On this trip, a three-day visit, she took along her brother Harold Meheula, who is Kealiiokalani’s father, and their 82-year-old mother, Viviana Meheula.

Viviana — whom everyone calls “Tutu,” a Hawaiian word for grandmother — was looking forward to reuniting with Kealiiokalani, her oldest grandson. “Before anything happens to Tutu, I wanted to make sure she would at least get to see him and hug him,” Meheula says.

It would be the first time Kealiiokalani had seen his father and grandmother since 2006.

Families of prisoners are accustomed to traveling to see their loved ones. People from large urban centers, such as Los Angeles, New York and Miami, routinely are imprisoned in rural state prisons hundreds of miles away. Federal inmates can be held at any federal prison in the country. The District of Columbia, which has no prisons of its own, ships its inmates to federal prisons in other states. And most states rely on interstate compact agreements to send away small numbers of special needs inmates, such as ex-cops or former gang members, for their own protection or for cool-down time after altercations.

But the majority of state prisoners who are shipped out of state come from Arkansas, California, Hawaii and Vermont.

Hawaii began sending prisoners en masse to mainland prisons in 1995, when it secured beds in a privately run Texas facility. Over the years, Hawaii expanded the practice, shipping thousands of prisoners to 14 facilities across eight states.

Today, under a $30-million-a-year contract with CCA, the state sends all its overflow prisoners to Saguaro, which was opened just for Hawaii in 2007, with a blessings ceremony performed by Hawaiian “cultural advisors” flown in from the islands.

There are 1,391 prisoners from Hawaii housed at Saguaro, and last year they had 2,798 in-person visits. CCA doesn’t break out how many individual prisoners received visits, and each day of a multiple-day visit counts as a separate “visit” in the tally.

For Meheula, the Arizona trip has been an annual ritual since 2010, two years after she first met Neula, who is serving two 10-year consecutive sentences for assaults, burglaries and robberies he committed in 2002.

The couple got to know each other through Kealiiokalani. The men struck up a friendship at the Diamondback Correctional Facility in Oklahoma before they were moved to Saguaro in 2007.

Mahealani Meheula holds Kelena Neula portrait photograph. 25 march 2016.

Mahealani Meheula met her boyfriend, Kelena Neula, in 2008 through her nephew, Kealiiokalani Meheula.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Neula made the first move, writing a letter to Meheula out of the blue in October 2008. At first, Meheula, a divorced mother of four, ignored him. But the letter kept nagging her. “He’s very poetic. And he was honest about who he was,” she said. Two months later, Meheula sent him a short Christmas note. It started a correspondence that quickly increased in its frequency and intimacy.

Meheula said she and Neula bonded over their Native Hawaiian roots. Neula, who grew up in Maui, has tattooed on his chest the words of the Law of the Splintered Paddle — a precept in Hawaiian law that King Kamehameha I issued in 1797 to ensure his people’s free movement on the land he controlled.

In August 2010, Meheula made her first visit to Saguaro, taking advantage of a long layover in Phoenix on her way to an annual conference she attends for her work as a housing counselor for people facing eviction. She returned to Saguaro five times this way.

“I was so nervous because I had never been to prison before,” Meheula said. “In Hawaii prisons, I knew you couldn’t wear underwire bras, so I was at the hotel at 5 o’clock in the morning, cutting out the underwire from the bra.” That wasn’t the policy at CCA, so she ruined a $50 bra.

Each visit brings a similar array of policies and procedures that have to be negotiated from several time zones away.

Just before her trip in March, when she decided to bring her mother and brother, she discovered she wouldn’t be allowed to see both her boyfriend and nephew. CCA doesn’t allow outsiders, other than immediate family, to see more than one inmate per visit. Meheula had been given an exception before — but not this time.

cca saguaro prison mehealani

March 5, 11:50 a.m. MST: Viviana Meheula, left, and Mahealani and Harold arrive at the Saguaro Correctional Center. Visiting hours are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Once inside, the family went through two metal doors before entering a room, which Meheula said resembles a cafeteria. (CCA would not let a reporter accompany Meheula and her family inside.) “Mom was all upset just going in,” Harold said. “Seeing all the despair. She was emotional and almost to tears.”

The meeting room has rows of tables where visitors can sit across from their loved ones, hold their hands and, as Hawaiians say, “talk story.” But Meheula said families typically first make a beeline to a room with vending machines, for treats such as potato chips, sodas and juice, as well as pizzas and sandwiches that can be heated up in an aging microwave.

Inmates and their families sometimes play cards and board games, but mostly they catch up. “To be in front of him and be able to talk to him is way different from talking on the phone,” Meheula said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. There’s no replacement for that.”

Meheula said she and Neula were able to sit at a table next to Kealiiokalani’s, and the guards let her give him a hug. But she wasn’t allowed to be in a family picture. “They say Kealii’s not my son, but we’re talking about Hawaiian — he is basically my son,” she said. “We take care of each other’s children.”

“It broke my heart,” she said.

Kealiiokalani Meheula, Mahealani Meheula's nephew, with his sister Kainani, in October 2015. He has been held at the Saguaro Correctional Center since 2007.

Kealiiokalani Meheula, Mahealani Meheula’s nephew, with his sister Kainani, in October 2015. He has been held at the Saguaro Correctional Center since 2007.

Courtesy of Mahealani Meheula

The total cost of the trip, including a detour to pick up Tutu at her house near Seattle, would be about $2,300. But Meheula said she realizes she is one of the luckier people who can afford to make regular visits.

Jean White, the mother of a Vermont prisoner currently housed in Michigan, said her son’s young children are able to visit him once a year, at most. “Little kids don’t have the attention span to hold a phone, or interact by phone. That’s one of the many tragedies of this situation,” White said.

Dahlia Blyden lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and her husband, Darryl, is locked up in Virginia. She can catch a glimpse of him only twice a year, when the local courthouse arranges video conferences. “I can see them walking him into the room in shackles,” she said. “And I can hear the chains jingle, even this far away.”

Blyden tried to visit him once. She saved money for the flight to New York, took a bus from there to Virginia and found a motel.

But over the next two days, driving around unfamiliar, mountainous roads, she got so lost and overwhelmed that she gave up and went back home.

Great distances between prisoners and their home states pose other problems.

Contracting with out-of-state facilities makes it trickier for state officials to maintain oversight. Critics have long lambasted CCA and other private prison companies for contract violations and safety and security problems. In Hawaii, the state auditor’s office issued a report in 2010 criticizing the Department of Public Safety’s monitoring unit that oversees contractual compliance by private prisons. The report, issued several months after two Hawaii inmates were murdered at Saguaro, found that the department’s monitors performed on-site inspections at the Arizona prison only on a quarterly basis, taking CCA officials’ word about compliance with the contract.

CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns called the allegations stale and peddled by “familiar critics.”

“It’s even less relevant to the rapidly changing corrections space today,” he said. He said the company welcomes “the robust oversight of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety at Saguaro Correctional Facility, as well as that of government partners in all other CCA facilities” and takes the safety of inmates seriously.

In May 2015, when Vermont inmate James Nicholson died at CCA’s prison in Kentucky, authorities back home said they struggled to get answers. Nicholson had heart disease and diabetes, but weeks earlier he had also been beaten so badly by a fellow inmate that his skull was fractured and his brain bruised.

Nicholson’s cause of death was ultimately listed as undetermined. “It was damn near impossible for us to get any information from a coroner all the way in Kentucky,” said Richard Sears, chairman of the judiciary committee in the Vermont State Senate.

The distance also makes it more difficult for inmates to keep up with their court dates and other legal needs. Vermont prisoners have only 30 days to file appeals of court decisions, and those who are housed in Michigan often use up much of that time corresponding long-distance with their lawyers and with the court. The Prison Law Office, a prisoner-advocacy group in California, has reported that out-of-state prisoners face obstacles in getting the forms and information they need in order to file legal cases back home. And a 2006 National Institute of Corrections report noted that when prisoners are held out of state, their home state’s parole agency may be less able to keep tabs on their progress.

Planning for re-entry into society is also difficult, since potential employers, landlords and social service providers are thousands of miles away.

Repeated studies have found that prisoners who maintain close ties with family, friends and others from home are far less likely to commit another crime. One Western Criminology Review study in 2006 called it “a remarkably consistent association.” A 2007 study in which the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction analyzed its own inmates concluded that the more visits they received, the less they broke prison rules. A similar study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections in 2011 concluded that remaining connected to life outside prevented the inmates from “assuming a criminal identity.”

“Any time you move inmates away from the people who can support them, away from where they’re going to actually re-enter society, I have to say it is flat-out correctional malpractice,” said Kevin Kempf, director of the Idaho Department of Correction, which had been shipping inmates out of state since 1997 until bringing them all home last month.

States that ship excess prisoners out of state believe it is not only a quick fix for packed prisons, but also the relatively cheaper option.

Hawaii pays CCA about $70 a day to house each inmate at Saguaro, compared with an average of $140 a day for an inmate at any of the four prisons back home. In Vermont, an out-of-state prison bed costs about $62 per day; in-state, the price tag is $162. For the U.S. Virgin islands, the choice is between as little as $67 on the mainland, versus $150 on the islands. (California’s complicated budget picture makes it more difficult to make a similar comparison.)

“Saving money has to always be at the top of our minds,” said Mike Touchette, the Vermont Department of Corrections’ director of correctional facilities. “I think it’s fair to say that the first reason we chose GEO Group and the facility in Michigan was the cost savings.”

CCA is paid up to about $185 million per year by California and Hawaii for out-of-state space, and GEO gets as much as about $15 million a year from Vermont to house prisoners in Michigan. Arkansas spends up to $4.75 million a year for LaSalle Southwest Corrections to operate the jail in Bowie County, Texas, where its overflow inmates are kept.

cca saguaro prison eloy mahealani

From left: Nearly 1,400 Hawaii prisoners are incarcerated In Eloy, Arizona, a town about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix; Eloy’s water tower looms over single-story buildings lining North Main Street; sheep on a farm along Arizona’s Route 287.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There is also an economic incentive for the regions that receive the prisoners from other states.

When the people of Lake County, Michigan, the poorest county in that state, learned that their local prison might reopen to accept inmates from Vermont, many were thrilled. The state representative there and the executive director of Michigan Works, a jobs program, both sent letters to Vermont officials pleading for the contract to be signed.

Now that the facility has opened for business, Lake County Commissioner Dan Sloan said unemployment has plummeted from double digits to about 7 percent in less than a year. “We’re seeing more use of our facilities, gas stations, retail, everything,” he said.

In Sayre, Oklahoma, where California sent hundreds of inmates until last year, City Manager Guy Hylton said that having prisoners from out of state “was a miracle for a town like ours, there’s no other way to put it. Commissary purchases were one of our largest sources of sales tax, and the utilities that the prison paid for were like…having a whole other city here in our city.”

“Any time you move inmates away from the people who can support them, away from where they’re going to actually re-enter society, I have to say it is flat-out correctional malpractice.” — Kevin Kempf, director of the Idaho Department of Correction

In other spots, promises of a local boon never panned out. Shortly after the Tallahatchie County Correctional Center opened in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 2000, it was hailed by many as the salvation of the region. But in the years since, CCA has not spent as much of its revenue on the Mississippi Delta economy as local leaders had hoped. They say that the company’s “elective investments” in the community were small to begin with and have gone down ever since.

Randy Wolfe, the Tallahatchie County administrator, and the Rev. Ilanda Pimpton, a local pastor, had also hoped that new hotels and businesses, maybe even a new highway, would eventually crop up in their poor, mostly black community. Yet over a decade after the prison’s opening, the county remains so economically underdeveloped that it does not have a single hotel for families from California who might visit.

Burns, the CCA spokesman, said the company has spent more than $179.3 million over the last 15 years in payroll alone, and also pays the community more than $5 million annually in property taxes, sales taxes and utility bills. He also said CCA made an undisclosed donation to a local cancer center, purchased an ambulance to be used both by the prison and by the community, and gave $8,000 to the West Tallahatchie School District, among other elective investments.

But for those living in the Delta’s poverty, the prison has been a false promise. “That prison should be to the Delta region what Toyota is to North Mississippi: a big economic deal,” said Johnny B. Thomas, the mayor of Glendora, a nearby town. “But the corporation is taking all the proceeds while our children’s schools are falling down.”

In 2004, when Vermont first started sending prisoners to a private prison in Kentucky, the state’s commissioner of corrections, Steve Gold, made clear that it was to be a short-term remedy: “My hope and my goal really is to eliminate the need for any Vermonters having to go out of state,” he said. In Arkansas, an out-of-state contract that was supposed to end last year has been extended through June and possibly longer, in part because the high-profile 2013 murder of a teenager by a parolee has made state parole officials wary of releasing people from prison.

And in California, out-of-state prisons continue to serve as a crutch for a state that has struggled with prison overcrowding. In 2006, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made an “emergency proclamation” that he would handle the severe overcrowding by sending some inmates to other states. The state legislature authorized the move, but initially for a period of only five years.

After those five years came and went, the state was still shipping more than 10,000 inmates beyond its borders.

Under a federal court order, California is required to eventually bring those inmates home. Yet the latest estimates show only 110 of them coming back this year, and the contract with CCA — for over 6,500 beds of out-of-state space — was recently renewed through 2019.

Hawaii’s dependency on out-of-state prisons also is unlikely to change soon: The state’s four prisons and four jails are bursting at the seams. As of March 28, 4,634 inmates were crammed into space designed to house 2,491.

Hawaii’s prison officials have looked for ways to increase the state’s prison capacity, but under Gov. David Ige, the priority now is to replace the Oahu Community Correctional Center, a crumbling 100-year-old Honolulu jail. Any plan to build a new prison facility would have to wait for OCCC’s replacement — estimated to take a minimum of five to seven years.

Some Hawaii lawmakers are trying to reduce the state’s inmate population with the ultimate aim of bringing everyone back from the mainland. The most prominent effort came in 2012, when state lawmakers adopted the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a federally backed, evidence-based effort to reduce incarceration of low-level, nonviolent offenders and shift resources to community-based programming.

The initiative was projected to slash the inmate population by more than 900 by June 2015. But the number has hardly budged: The state’s overall inmate population still stands at 6,025 — only 35 fewer than four years ago. Pretrial inmates continue to face lengthy jail stays, and low-risk prisoners remain behind bars for an average of about 550 days past their parole-eligibility date.

A handful of state legislators have pushed for other reform measures, but their efforts typically fall a few votes short of passing. Such was the fate for a number of bills in this year’s session, including one known as “25 by 25,” which called for the creation of a committee to help reduce the inmate population by 25 percent by 2025.

All this means that, for the time being, Meheula and Neula have to make do, fostering their relationship primarily through their daily phone conversations and letter-writing.

Mahealani Meheula shows letters and correspondence from boyfriend Kelena Neula. 25 march 2015

In her Wahiawa home, Mahealani Meheula has three boxes full of letters her boyfriend, Kelena Neula, has sent her over the years.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The couple has developed a routine of talking twice a day, about 20 minutes each time. Neula makes the first call in the morning, often acting like an alarm clock for Meheula in Hawaii, which is three hours behind Arizona. He calls again between 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., around the time Meheula is wrapping up her work or heading to a bus stop on her way home.

“If I don’t hear from him for a day, then I get worried,” Meheula said.

To keep her calls affordable, Meheula, who pre-pays for Nuela’s calls from prison, has switched her cell phone’s number to one with Arizona’s 520 area code, so that Global Tel*Link, an Alabama-based company that runs Saguaro’s phone system, won’t charge her out-of-state rates — currently 21 cents to 25 cents a minute. The strategy has kept her phone bills to a manageable level: about $100 a month, instead of the $300 that some Hawaii families now pay.

If all goes well, Meheula would have to keep this up for another three years.

Under the Hawaii Department of Public Safety’s policy, any Saguaro inmate who is within one year of satisfying his minimum sentence is supposed to be sent back to Hawaii so that he can start participating in the programs required for gaining parole, such as work furlough.

Neula is likely to be transferred sometime in 2019 to the Halawa Correctional Facility, about a half-hour drive from Meheula’s house in Wahiawa, a district in the lush central valley between the two mountain ranges that make up the island of Oahu.

Until then, Meheula said she intends to continue visiting Saguaro at least once a year.

“The visits are very important to the inmates. You’re sent so far away, and you literally feel like you’re neglected,” Meheula said. “It’s been positive for (Neula). He tells me all the time that, before he met me, he was always fighting with others — just trying to survive. But he’s a different man now. Even the warden would tell him, ‘We haven’t heard from you for a long time.'”

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