Denby Fawcett: A University Degree Program at Halawa Was 'Transformative’ For These Prisoners - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

It’s the first such program in Hawaii that allows inmates to earn a college degree with classes taught by professors working directly with them at the prison.

Chaminade University of Honolulu on May 17 graduated seven Halawa Correctional Facility prisoners with associate degrees in business administration.

An eighth inmate Nikkos Gordon, who was released in December, is expected to graduate this summer after he completes his last two last classes at Chaminade in Kaimuki. He was convicted of sexual assault.

Hawaiiʻs prisons and jails are called “correctional” centers, but until now they have done little to correct inmates’ errant behavior.  

“Television is the prisons’ biggest babysitter. At Halawa, TVs are on from 6:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night. The prisoners just sit in front of them watching,“ said John Granger, who is serving a 10-year sentence for arson.

Granger, 38, said the Chaminade program gave him something to reach for: “My blinders came off. The instructors had a belief in us. They allowed me to believe in myself. They never treated us like inmates, just students.”

Raphael Holley, 23, the youngest of the graduates, was a ninth grade dropout who got his high school degree in prison. Instructors said he asked the most questions in the classes and urged his parents to send him every book recommended in his classes.

“The hurt that I put on my parents was horrible. It took me to come to a place like this, unfortunately, to understand that, but this was my greatest accomplishment so far and I hope to have many more,” he said. 

Holley is in prison on convictions of robbery and sexual assault.

It is the first time any Hawaii inmate has been given the opportunity to earn a college degree by attending classes taught by professors coming into prison to work directly with them.

Raphael Holley, 23, received his high school degree in prison. He is the youngest graduate from the Chaminade program conducted at Halawa Correctional Facility. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Ronald Page, 67, who is serving a 20-year sentence for attempted murder, said the program gave him purpose. “It kept me busy to read and study and excel. I accomplished something while locked up. I am proud,” he said.

Instructors said Page as the oldest student brought a calming presence to the others. 

All the graduates committed serious crimes. Albert Batalona is serving a life sentence without parole for violent felonies. He gained notoriety in 1999 and 2003 for shooting at a police officer during a robbery attempt, then a subsequent attempted escape.

Yet, in the Chaminade program Batalona was a top student, considered along with another inmate graduate, Anthony Chatman, the kindest and most helpful to the other students.

Left to right: Raphael Holley, Albert Batalona, John Granger pose during their graduation from the program run by Chaminade University at the Halawa Correctional Facility. (Courtesy: Department of Public Safety/2023)

“They were exceptional leaders who brought great support to the group when morale was dipping. They taught the others to persist when they wanted to give up. The dogged persistence all of them showed to get their degrees is a transformative skill that will help them when they get outside,” said Janet Davidson.

Davidson is Chaminade’s vice provost for academic affairs who with Chaminade’s chief learning officer Lance Askildson applied for the Second Chance Pell Grant to launch the venture. The grant paid $6,495 for each prisoner’s tuition while the inmates’ books and other materials were funded with donations from Chaminade’s community supporters.

Davidson said the goal was not to reduce the inmates to the worst thing they had ever done. “All we wanted was for them to grow together,” she said.

That acceptance is what each graduate I spoke with Friday in the prison said boosted their self worth and made them trust the Chaminade instructors.

To get their degrees they had to pass the same advanced business administration classes all other Chaminade students take as well as classes in history, poetry, drama, criminal justice and communications. 

They began to discover talents and skills in themselves they did not know existed.

Halawa inmates graduation inmate Kelson Ako
Inmate Kelson Akeo shows off his degree at the graduation ceremony. (Courtesy: Department of Public Safety/2023)

Kelson Akeo, of the Kona area of Hawaii island, said he found he has communications skills and sees a future for himself in public relations.

Akeo is in prison for sexual assault and kidnapping.

As a 10th grade dropout, he could find work only in construction before landing in prison. But after earning his high school degree and university associate degree behind bars his opportunities have expanded. “I had not worked with my brain before,” he said.

The program got off to a rocky start in the fall of 2021 — the height of the coronavirus pandemic — when nine of the original 17 enrollees dropped out.

Davidson said some critics were already starting to dismiss the program as an easy course for the inmates who have nothing but free time on their hands.

But that was not true. The inmates lacked access to some of the most basic learning tools other university students take for granted.

In the first place, prisoners are never allowed to use the internet.

Also, the prisonʻs learning center — the only place where the inmates could access their course work on computers — was frequently closed during pandemic lockdowns or when there were prison staffing shortages.

“The dogged persistence all of them showed to get their degrees is a transformative skill that will help them when they get outside.”

Janet Davidson, Chaminade vice provost

In addition, their professors were prohibited from entering the prison when it was closed to visitors during pandemic lockdowns.

In the first few months, the inmates struggled to do lessons by themselves, sometimes locked down in their housing units, working only with paper and pens.

“I thought, oh no, I am not going to make it,” said graduate Keola Rapoza. “It was so difficult during the whole Covid thing. We were teaching ourselves in our cells when we were not yet familiar with college-style learning. We tried our best to help each other.”

Rapoza, 45, expects to get out of prison next year. Before he was imprisoned for felonies including burglary and car theft he had a thriving career as a builder and designer of high-performance style long boards with his own surfboard brand: K-Rapoza.

He credits Halawa’s education supervisor Roseanne Propato for keeping him going.

Many of the inmates were high school dropouts who eventually earned high school equivalency degrees. Almost none had ever been in a round table, a college-style discussion group, sparking their minds to consider different ideas.

Davidson said Batalona did much to enliven the discussions, always bringing pertinent new materials to the intellectual exchanges. “He is the most well-read person I have ever met. His drive to learn and grow is exceptional,” she said.

As the oldest student Ronald Page, 67, brought calm to the student group. “I accomplished something while locked up. I am proud,” he said. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Everyone who read or covered news in the late 1990s is likely to remember Batalona.  

To many, he was considered incorrigible.

Batalona smiles about that himself. He said when former Hawaii Public Safety Director Max Otani came to Halawa to check out the Chaminade University degree program and saw him enrolled, he said, “Man, am I surprised to see you here.”

Batalona’s name dominated the news in July 1999 when he was the ringleader of three other men — all wearing black ski masks and armed with assault rifles — rushing in at midday to rob the Kahala branch of American Savings Bank.

They fled with $120,000 after shooting 25 rounds at Frederick Rosskopf, a Honolulu police officer who responded to the bank’s silent alarm. Rosskopf told a reporter later he thought he was going to die but none of the bullets hit him. Except for a few scratches, he was unharmed.

Three of the robbers drove away in cars and soon were caught. But Batalona, then 24, escaped in a bakery van he commandeered from an older delivery driver. He was on the lam for eight days, evading a 100 person, islandwide manhunt before being apprehended in an Aiea parking lot. 

Batalona’s notoriety might have ended after he was locked up for life for his convictions including attempted murder for shooting at the police officer, robbery and other firearms violations.

Albert Batalona is serving a life sentence without parole for violent felonies. Chaminade instructors said he was a top student who also provided support to others in the program conducted at Halawa Correctional Facility. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

However, three years later he and two other inmates were back in the headlines after they removed the grouting from a hollow tile wall in a restroom in the high-security portion of Halawa prison and crawled through the walls of the facility, making their way to the unmanned front entrance of the facility where they slipped out through a hole in the fence.

They went to the Stadium Mall where they carjacked a Honda that they drove to Hauula shopping center. They ditched the car there and headed toward the hills climbing deep into Hauula valley where they hid out in the deep undergrowth of the forest for almost a week, living on beef jerky, granola bars Batalona had purchased from the prison commissary before they escaped, and wild fruit they picked. They were undetected until a pig hunter saw them in the brush and alerted police. 

Batalona told me as a youth he had been an avid Boy Scout earning a Life Rank. His outdoor skills, he said, helped the three of them survive in the cold and rain in the forest.

Police captured the fugitives in different places after they left the valley: Batalona on a city bus where he sat in the front seat wearing dark glasses and a ski cap he pulled down to cover part of his face.

Batalona is 48 years old now with gray hair and a carefully clipped beard. His numerous appeals to get his sentence reduced from life in prison have failed, but he still holds hope of getting out. 

“Before this college program, I had been floating in the wind, not caring. It gave us something to do, to use our time positively. The ACOs (guards) saw change in all of us, especially me. I learned it is alright to be vulnerable. That I am not the best at everything. There is always space to learn more.”

He said when he gets out, as he hopes he eventually will, he wants to work with a nonprofit that helps prisoners when they are released successfully transition to the outside.

Now offenders are pretty much released on the streets when they get out with few case managers to ease the transition. Batalona said in his cell block there is only one case manager to help 120 inmates.

Raphael Holley with his father Robert Holley who had come to the graduation ceremony from Ft. Meyers, Florida. (Provided: Hawaii Department of Public Safety)

On May 17, the inmate graduates were honored at what corrections officials made closely resemble a normal university graduation ceremony within the walls of the prison. Each inmate was allowed to invite two guests.

Raphael Holley’s father flew from Fort Meyers, Florida, to be with him.

“All I wanted to do is hold him tight and kiss him. This has so much meaning and now he has a second chance to change the trajectory of his life,” his dad, Robert Holley, said in tears at the luncheon following the ceremony.

If there was only one regret after the graduation, it was that the inmate learners had no further opportunity to keep going to earn a bachelor’s degree while they are incarcerated.

“It’s unfortunate there is no other university program to satisfy my quest to learn more,” said Anthony Chatman, who is serving a life with parole sentence for attempted murder.

Chaminade says it is preparing for the next associate degree program to begin in August at Halawa prison. Almost 60 inmates have signed up for the 18 to 20 slots.

“They now know it is a safe place where you will get intellectually pushed, but you will get through it like the others did,” said Davidson.

Chaminade also is looking to expand the program to start a bachelor’s degree in Halawa and to offer an associate degree to inmates at the women’s prison.

“It is a no-brainer to provide more of these opportunities to the inmates,” said Davidson.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Great article. Let's hope it's real. Usually sex offenders are incurable. Does society want to "try felons out" on the next victim? Don't forget real science, not soft science.Longitudinal studies are few if any. From birth to adulthood, for example. The marketplace for grants doesn't encourage real science. That doesn't help the public. Or the courts, who it seems, mostly have a deaf ear to true science as recent soft science shows.If an entire profession gets off on the wrong assumptions it ends with funded positions trying to validate wrong answers. just to be funded. That is inevitably destructive to whomever is victimized by those erroneous and a priori assumptions. And there are many victims.True science's a priori assumptions are called "hypotheticals" to be tested and if wrong, disproven. Not just used on the next victim in the name of soft science looking to be "science".

prohuman · 4 months ago

OkI was at the graduation. It was really something. There was unbelievable support from people in attendance. Everyone cheered so hard when they announced Kelson was from the halawa prison program.I hope all the graduates can be successful so this program gains momentum to grow in the future. Kind of sad that Chaminade is the first university to offer this. UH where are you? With all the money we send there in taxes, kind of shocking that a private university is partnering with the prison system for this. Maybe we should start funding Chaminade with some of our taxpayer funds going to UH.

hawaii_living · 4 months ago

Wow I never thought I would be seeing Raphael, who was my High School classmate in a Civil Beat article. I was shocked when I learned what he was charged with when he was arrested just a year after our class High School graduation. I’m glad to see him and others try and turn their lives around through education.

nixnaij · 4 months ago

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