A pilot program includes peer tutoring, a counselor, correspondence classes and a reentry planning program.

Simoné Kamaunu flew from her home on Oahu to Maui after receiving a call in September 2020 from her 11-year-old son who was in a hospital. He had been abused while in foster care and she wanted to help him. There was one problem — she was on parole and her parole officer had advised her not to go.

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Kamaunu, who was pregnant and in her third trimester, was arrested on Maui a few months later, then flown back to Oahu and incarcerated at the Women’s Community Correctional Center, where she gave birth to her daughter Na’ilima. 

It was then that she decided to try to do something different with her life, starting by correcting the fact that she had never received a high school diploma.

“I wanted something different for my baby,” Kamaunu said. She saw an opportunity, when she was told in jail about the Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justice higher and continuing education pilot program at Windward Community College.

“I was trying to get my GED for so long and figured, hey, why not try this, too? I tried everything else,” she said.

The Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justice is a nonprofit educational organization that helps people and groups, such as inmates, live more cooperatively and peacefully. It’s in its third year after being seeded by a $250,000 grant from the governor’s emergency education relief fund in August 2021.

Womens Community Correctional Center first building we visited .
The latest state budget included $225,000 in additional funding for a program to help inmates at the the Women’s Community Correctional Center obtain higher and continuing education. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

In 2022, government funds were appropriated for the program, but Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justice has not yet received them and funded the program with a private donation for its second year.

Additional Funding

The latest state budget included $225,000 in additional funding for the program via House Bill 300. The state had to fund the program, as well as a Windward Community College counselor position stationed at the prison, to keep it intact.

The four-pronged program includes peer tutoring, the Windward Community College counselor, correspondence classes and a reentry planning program. 

Program director Lorenn Walker said inmates who gain a GED diploma in the program earn $200 and are then offered a peer-tutoring position to help tutor the next cohort of inmates. The program so far has trained 37 women, including Kamaunu, as peer tutors. Before this program was available, only two women per year who were incarcerated in the same facility passed the exam.

“The target is really the tutors,” Walker said. “We want the tutors to go to college. This is higher education and continuing education, but higher comes first.”

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Walker likened the peer tutoring to the Montessori method — a more independent method of education involving student-led activities referred to as “work” — developed by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s.

The correspondence classes are purchased by the program from Adams State University’s prison education program, which has helped thousands of inmates throughout the United States reach their education goals. Windward Community College has subsequently created some correspondence classes of its own. 

Kamaunu said she was a drug addict as a teen and dropped out of Maui High School in her sophomore year, 2005, after giving birth to her first child. She said she has been in and out of prison since 2011, convicted of crimes such as identity theft in 2011, burglary and the fraudulent use of a credit card. 

Kamaunu’s son had memorized her phone number and called her from the hospital asking for help finding a new place to live after he had been abused in foster care. This prompted Kamaunu’s desperate run to Maui in 2020. She eventually arranged for the sister of her first child’s father to take care of her son. 

‘It Made Me Want To Get A Higher Education’

She said she taught herself to read via word games on her telephone and computer. She had previously failed the math portion of the GED test four times but finally passed with a college-level score after working with the Hawaii Friends group.

“All the tutors helped push something in myself to want education,” she said. “I didn’t want education before because I didn’t think I needed it, or I could never amount to what I wanted to do.”

Another former inmate, Destiny Kaleiwahea, said the Hawaii Friends program also inspired her.

“I took the correspondence course so when I got out I was already enrolled in Windward Community College,” she said. “It made me want to get a higher education.”

Kaleiwahea now is studying social work at the college, with the intent of becoming a youth substance abuse counselor.

Kaleiwahea and Kamaunu both credit the peer tutoring as being monumental in their educational progress. Kamaunu said she had been trying to gain her GED diploma for 17 years. 

“When we got our GED, we even had our cap and gown,” Kaleiwahea said. “It was an amazing experience.”

After signing up for the program as a new mother, Kamaunu faced many challenges. For example, she had to be excused from class at times to pump breast milk. 

To do that, she recalled entering the medical wing of the prison through large, cold, steel doors, into what she described as a “small office” that definitely didn’t have a comfortable feel to it. 

“I was so stressed that I wasn’t producing milk,” Kamaunu said. But the support offered by the program made all the difference.

“My tutor, Momilani Cody, didn’t give up on me and didn’t let me give up on myself,” Kamaunu said. “To me that’s very vital. All my life, I’ve given up on everything. I gave up on school. I gave up on Hawaiian immersion. I gave up on myself. This time, I didn’t want to. I was going to school.”

Passing her GED test was the cherry on top of the experience, Kamaunu said. It gave her the inner fire to pursue a higher education.

Kamaunu now attends Windward Community College. She said she is a 4.0 student and working toward earning 14 college-level credits this year. As a fluent Hawaiian speaker, Kamaunu wants to be able to teach Hawaiian language and help to revive use of the language. 

This program “made me more comfortable in myself,” Kamaunu said. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been very rewarding.”

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