Cheryle and Tania make the mile-long walk every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. They walk twice, actually—first at 3:30 p.m. and then again at 6 p.m. They walk alone, forbidden from stopping or talking to anyone on the way. Bad things happen if it takes them more than 30 minutes to get to their destination.
The rules and restrictions facing Cheryle and Tania are due more to where they’re walking from than where they’re headed. That’s because Cheryle and Tania are inmates at Maui Community Correctional Center. Both women, who asked that only their first names appear in this article, are single mothers. Cheryle has four children while Tania has three. They’re both in their early 30s and in the middle of five-year prison terms for ice use.
They’re also part of a new Drug Court program called Track Five that allows them to walk or ride a bike out of prison four days a week to get counseling and treatment at the Cameron Center. Once there, the women and about a half dozen other inmates talk about social behavior, critical thinking, thoughts, feelings, urges, co-dependency and self-esteem.
“I’ve pretty much accepted that I’m [in prison],” said Cheryle. “The first couple days [in Track Five] I felt crappy. Why are we here? But now I’m okay with that. Sometimes it’s crazy—we get here, and we want to go back.”
“At first, we were scared to even leave,” said Tania. “We’ve been inside a while.”
Both Cheryle and Tania said they’ve seen family members drive by and stop while they’re headed to the Cameron Center. In those cases, the women had to ignore them.
“You have to do the right thing, even when nobody’s looking,” said Tania.
Cheryle agreed. “It can get overwhelming,” she said.
According to MCCC Acting Warden Alan Nouchi, there are a couple reasons behind allowing inmates to walk in and out of prison.
“It’s not feasible for us to run a shuttle service,” he said. “If they can walk or peddle their way, it will give us an idea as to the trust factor. We set the time to go and come back. Their custody level enables them to go on their own.”
They are monitored on their journey, Nouchi said, though not one-to-one. But the acting warden did say that one Track Five inmate attempted to ride off the route to meet his girlfriend for “hanky panky.” A roving guard caught him almost immediately. His attempt landed him back in lockdown.
Track Five has been in existence for just a little over three months. There’s currently room at MCCC for 24 males and a dozen females to participate in the program, and they live in Dorms III and V, respectively. It is unprecedented in the State of Hawaii.
“It’s part of our holistic approach,” said Drug Court Administrator Barbara-Ann Keller. “We’re rebuilding their lives.”
Cheryle and Tania have been in the program for 60 days, but they’re uncertain when they’ll finish and be able to transfer into work furlough. Both professed gratitude for getting the chance to clean up their lives.
“If they just let us out on parole, I would end up using again,” said Tania. “At last we can look at the consequences we face. We are able to function when clean.”
I visited Cheryle and Tania at the Cameron Center a couple weeks ago. Sitting in a classroom with tables arranged in a square and pale green walls, they wore not orange scrubs but the privileged jeans and t-shirts that come with good behavior.
Each woman had been through Drug Court before, but had failed—“relapsed” was how they put it. That’s the trade-off for agreeing to Drug Court in the first place: successfully complete many months of rigorous counseling and treatment or go to jail.
Before she got into trouble, Cheryle was a nursing student. Now’s she’s a convicted felon with two years in MCCC under her belt.
In 1999, she was arrested for stealing “clothes, lots and lots of clothes from Sears.” She got five years probation. But while on probation, she said she came up with a “dirty UA”—a urine analysis that showed the presence of crystal methamphetamine.
“I started using at a late age,” she said. “At 28, when my relationship of 10 years fell apart. I never did anything before. As soon as I took my first hit, the pain was no longer there. I wanted to smoke, I wanted to do it. I lost all sense of self, responsibility.”
They were going to revoke her probation and send her to jail, but first she opted to join Impact, the forerunner of Maui Drug Court.
“The first time I got into recovery, my kids were taken away and I thought I had to stop,” said Cheryle. “I was clean for a year. Everything was good, everything was fine. As soon as I got them back I relapsed. I got into a relationship with another drug court client. I broke a rule. But I also ended up using. It was an unhealthy relationship. I didn’t want to be alone. I believed at the time that I loved him, even if it meant going to jail. Now that I think about it, it’s crazy. I don’t want to make excuses. Having my kids back was overwhelming, having to raise them on your own.”
Cheryle said she knew she was going to jail, so she kept smoking Ice all the way to her day in court. Now that she’s in prison, getting treatment for her drug addiction, she says she wants to get back to nursing after her release.
By comparison, Tania’s only been in MCCC for 13 months. But her story is very similar—arrested for possession of Ice in 1999, she’s also a former Drug Court drop-out.
“I was offered to do treatment instead of jail,” she said. This was in 2001. “I was hanging out with people I was not supposed to hang out with. Was using and selling drugs. Then I got sanctioned by Drug Court. Somebody told on me. I was sent to MCCC.
“Had the opportunity to go to Pasadena, to Impact for residential treatment. I stayed there 90 days. Then I came home, got into trouble again, hanging with people who were using and selling. Then I decided not to go to my court hearing. I was scared. I wasn’t ready to go back to jail.”
She was “on the run” for a few weeks before tiring of “looking over my shoulder. So I packed my bags and went to jail.”
Before she got into trouble, she was self-employed, cleaning people’s homes. She said she would like to go back to that.
Cheryle and Tania are tantalizingly close to freedom, but they are still inmates. Though listening to the women talk, you’d almost think prison wasn’t so bad.
Sure, when you first go in you’re stuck on an empty floor, 24-7. All you see are four walls, your bunk, toilet and sink. But their good behavior has bought them access to Dorm V, where they enjoy privileges like not having to wear bright orange scrubs. They can also stay up until 2:30 in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays watching TV.
Both are enrolled in pre-employment courses, as well as Hula Halau participants. In fact, on May 1 they danced at the Queen Ka’ahumunu shopping center in Kahului. Of course, the same “can’t talk with the other people” restrictions applied, but they did get to dance the hula in public.
That being said, prison also means that they have very little contact with their children. And they have a lot of children. Cheryle has four children—two boys, ages 13 and 11, and two girls, ages nine and five. Of them, Cheryle said the boys are living in Las Vegas with their father. Tania has two daughters, 15 and 14, who live in Lahaina with her mother and one 13-year-old son living in Arizona.
But on May 5—a week after I interviewed them—Cheryle and Tania got to spend two hours eating and playing with at least some of their children as part of a Mothers Day event sponsored by Maui Economic Opportunity and Headstart.
They arrived at the MEO offices near the Cameron Center at 3:30 in a big yellow school bus, the only Track Five participants in the group of 24 mothers. In fact, Cheryle and Tania were the first ones off the bus and in Classroom Two. Cheryle found her daughters immediately, but Tania hunted around a bit before finding her child that was able to attend.
Meanwhile, six guards in civilian clothes deployed to the room’s four corners. Acting Warden Nouchi, who came in a few minutes earlier, explained that the guards all volunteered for this duty.
“But I will pay them anyway,” he told me. “I have to.”
The women and children scattered around the room, decorated for Cinco de Mayo but filled with Hawaiian guitar music from two guys playing up front. Many children played off to the side, at games on the floor. Two boys played a game of oversized checkers while their mother sat cross-legged next to them, watching intently.
While some kids and mothers went to the craft tables, Tania and her daughter sat at a table near the center of the room, talking. I walked over and said hello, and Tania introduced me to her daughter.
A few minutes later one of the Headstart volunteers read a prayer. Tania and her daughter stood and listened. Tania put her left arm around her daughter’s shoulder, which wasn’t easy considering her daughter is a few inches taller than her.
At 4 p.m., nine of the inmates lined up near the two guitar players and danced the hula. Cheryle, one of the more experienced mothers, was up front, while rookie Tania danced in the back row. A large card colored with crayons sat directly in front of each of them.
“A lullaby was selected,” Cheryle told the crowd of inmates, children, guards, MEO staffers and reporters. “It reminds us of when they were babies. Each child is like a rainbow.”
When the women were finished, they walked out and handed the cards, usually decorated around the theme “I love you,” to their children.
Not long after, and standing off to the side, MEO Special Projects Director Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez pointed to one mother in a gray long-sleeve shirt and jeans.
“She used to work for us,” he said. “Now she’s got a job at an auto detailing shop. After a month she got a raise. She’s out in 30 days.”
We talked briefly about the novelty of having such a visitation event.
“Have you see the line at MCCC on the weekends?” he asked. “People standing out in the sun for hours, waiting. It wears you down. Pretty soon their visits are less regular.”
Across the room, Drug Court Administrator Keller was watching one mother and daughter.
“Look at that poor girl,” she said, referring to one crying girl being comforted by her mother. “She’s been crying the whole time.”
It was a little after five, shortly after the children busted open a couple piЦatas, that the event came to a close. As the guitarists played “Somewhere over the rainbow,” the inmates began collecting their souvenir photos and roses and cards in preparation for getting back on the bus to MCCC.
One woman cradled her baby—there were about half a dozen there that day—for a few moments, then handed the child to a staffer before taking her things and leaving. In the confusion, one over-worked staffer handed Keller a crying infant.
Tania, in the center of the room, spent her last few moments talking with her daughter. Cheryle then came over, and the both got their things. Neither was crying as they left the room. But as they got on the bus, Cheryle rushed back inside to retrieve a sweatshirt she’d accidentally left behind.
In an act of stunning symmetry that could only have been an accident, the song ended exactly as the last mother left the room and went back to prison.