On the outside looking in

WAILUA — Jane (not her real name ) has been in and out of the Kauai Community Correctional Center in Wailua three times.

Each time was the result of drug activity.

“I regret what I have done,” she said Tuesday in the visiting area of the facility during a prison ministry session. “I hate myself for being in here.”

Her most recent drug charge, compounded by the other two drug-related charges, may earn her a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison. Though she has been charged, Jane sits in the Wailua prison awaiting a court date that will determine her fate.

Jane’s son and mother are angry at her for ending up in prison, she says. They visit her, but the visits are not always friendly. “My oldest son has definite issues with me being in here,” Jane said. “My mom, she puts it all on me. Sometimes I want to tell her, ‘What about what you did?’ … ask her about some of the things she did that helped get me in here.”

Prison ministry chaplain Clayton Sui suggested Jane tell her mother, “I am in here every day thinking about how I got here. I don’t need any help beating myself up over it.”

Sui has been a volunteer chaplain in the Kaua’i Missionary Church’s Prison Ministry program since 1998.

After offering Jane advice about how to deal with her mother, Sui reminds Jane that her mother is taking care of the son. Jane’s head drops when she hears Sui’s words and a few teardrops follow.

“Clayton is really good in here because he is very keen,” said KCCC warden Neal Wagatsuma. “He’s not naive, and he’ll often tell people things they don’t necessarily want to hear.”

Sui says you need to listen and be a caring person while working in prison, but you have to be crafty as well. “You have to be streetwise,” he said. “People will try to fool you.”

He offers inmates a no-holds-barred kind of prison ministry that goes straight to the root of what’s bothering those he counsels. His visits are heavy on the Bible; the word of God is prevalent. Sui conducts Bible studies with groups and offers one-on-one counseling as well.

He often works as a liaison between the prisoner and the family and at times serves as a taxi driver shuttling people to and from KCCC.

On a recent morning, Sui visited with three women at the Wailua prison who have been charged with crimes, but have not appeared in front of a judge yet. The women’s crimes were serious enough to remain in custody, or had bail amounts too high for friends or family members to raise. All three of the women are mothers, and were born and raised on the island of Kaua’i.

Linda (not her real name) has five kids and is charged with 52 counts of theft. She said it is too easy to fall in with the wrong crowd on the island. It was easy for her to find work, she says, and she worked various jobs on the island. But before long, she found herself associating with thieves. “This is supposed to be the happiest time of my life, but here I am in jail,” Linda said.

Sui said that many of the crimes that land people like Linda in the KCCC were committed by making choices based on how they feel. “You need to make choices based on what you know is right,” Sui said. “Don’t put yourself in that life-style.”

Kathy (not her real name) knows she has no one to blame for being where she is. “I’m here ’cause I made the wrong choices,” Kathy said.

She is incarcerated on drug charges and may face as many as 15 years in prison for her crimes. “You learn real fast in here who your friends are and who aren’t,” she said, explaining that most of her drug buddies never visit her. “The only one suffering is my daughter.”

Sui knows a little about what makes the women tick. He got caught up in the late 1960s and early 1970s drug culture. Back then, Sui said, he was involved with using and selling marijuana and cocaine. After getting away from the drug scene, he became a Christian in 1980 and started working in a Honolulu mission preparing food for and serving the homeless population.

He says he realized his life’s calling then and decided to try and always help the homeless and those with addictions.

Helping prisoners became part of his mantra after moving to Kaua’i.

Sui moved to Kaua’i in 1990 and worked at various jobs until he established a relationship with Pastor Jerry Terui at Lihu’e Missionary Church. Terui had been running a prison ministry program for years and Sui wanted to be a part of it. “I started volunteering and it just fit like a glove,” Sui said.

Now he averages 20 hours a week at KCCC and says his volunteer work makes him feel extremely good about himself. He admits his motives may be a little selfish, but he wants to share the message that forgiveness is there. “But it is not a giveaway,” he said. “Those I see need to hone in on their problems and face them and work on them.”

Warden Wagatsuma sees the benefit of having volunteers come to the facility that houses around 150 individuals. Various churches have been sending volunteers to his facility for years, he said. “People like Clayton coming in here gives the people a sense of hope,” Wagatsuma said. “If you look at the dynamic of why people become institutionalized, it’s partly because they become comfortable with it … they get a certain degree of reinforcement on the inside and it makes them feel good.”

That may be one of the reasons the recidivism rate is so high, Wagatsuma says; as people become institutionalized, they lose touch with what it takes to make it on the outside.

Sui and the other volunteers represent one of those connections to the outside world that may help them assimilate back into society after their incarceration, Wagatsuma said.

They represent hope on the outside.

All three women Sui visited on the recent morning seemed to recognize their shortcomings and their personal roles in their problems. But they also recognized the pitfalls and the ease of finding trouble again on the outside.

Sui feels the biggest problem right now on the island is ice (methamphetamine) and the degradation it brings upon addicts and dealers. “It’s an epidemic … 90 percent of drug arrests are ice-related,” Sui said.

It increases the crime rate, the suicide rate and packs the only facility on the island to hold those caught up in the illegal activity, he says.

But until a solution can be found for the larger problems, Sui will continue to do his part in working towards those solutions by his presence at the prison on a regular basis.

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