For Kameha’ililani “Lani” Waiau, Oahu Prison in the 1970s was a place free from judgement and pity. It was where she went to visit her father every weekend alongside other children of incarcerated parents. It was where she felt normal and safe.

“We understood that Daddy did wrong and that he was learning how to be a better kanaka and he would be back home when he was stronger, when he had learned more skills and had mastered his ability to guide his mana in a positive way,” Waiau said.

Waiau chronicled her personal history as the child of a prisoner on Oahu in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a May 17 Civil Beat event, “Hawaii Storytellers: Incarceration.”

She was one of six storytellers who spoke in front of a live audience about their experiences with the Hawaii prison system. The event took place at Ka Waiwai in Moiliili.

Drawing on memories, song, faith and harbingers of hope, the storytellers revealed what it’s like to be imprisoned, the pain of losing a family member to incarceration and how it feels to take the first steps toward rebuilding a life ravaged by crime and drugs. 

Hawaii Storytellers: Incarceration was put on in partnership with Wai Wai Collective and Hawaii Arts Alliance.

A young Lani Waiau and her sister sit on the lap of their father, who was incarcerated on Oahu for 10 years starting in 1974. Contributed by Lani Waiau

Waiau remembers how in the prison yard, her father would play his guitar and Waiau and her sister would climb all over their dad like a jungle gym. They’d  tell him what books they were reading in school and show off their hula.

Prison was a safe space for Waiau largely because it was immune from the snickers and sneering lips that Waiau remembers having to endure in the schoolyard from kids who shamed her because her father was a convict.

Today Waiau is the principal of Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau, a Hawaiian language school in Kaneohe. Her experience decades ago with the Oahu prison system now informs her ability to identify, nurture and encourage students who, she says, need a little extra aloha.

“The kiddos who could have possibly been my dad always find their way into my classroom — and into my heart,” Waiau said.

Here are videos of the stories told by Waiau and two other speakers. You can view all the speakers here.

Lani Waiau shares her experience visiting her father at Oahu Prison as a child, which was a highlight of her week because she got to share new hula and mele with her father and play with other children while they waited in the courtyard. Now, as a principal of Ke Kula o Samuel Kamakau, a Hawaiian language school in Kaneohe, she notices that the kolohe, or rascal kids, who could have possibly been her dad, always find their way into her classroom.

Ken Lawson teaches criminal law at the University of Hawaii and is the co-director of the Hawaii Innocence Project. He had a successful law practice in Cincinnati until an addiction to prescription painkillers resulted in the loss of his law license. He pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge and was sentenced to 24 months in prison. Some of his high-profile clients include NFL stars Deion Sanders and Elbert “Ickey” Woods and musician Peter Frampton.

Matthew Taufete’e grew up in a Christian home and is the son of a pastor. At age 17, he ran away from home and got involved with drugs and gangs. Matt served time for assault and manslaughter. He was released on parole in 1993. Matt’s been married to the same woman for over 25 years and has five children. He said that he is “now a new man doing God’s work.”

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