Seven Halawa inmates earn their Associate’s
Graduations are no doubt a milestone achievement. And for seven Halawa Correctional Facility inmates, Commencement meant even more than simply receiving their Associate’s degree in Business Administration. The occasion truly marked a new beginning—and literally a second chance.
In her opening remarks, Chaminade President Dr. Lynn Babington invoked the fundamental question about the role of prison: Is it designed for punishment or rehabilitation?
“At Chaminade, one of our primary Marianist values is to advocate for social justice for transformative change,” Babington said to the newly-minted graduates and their families. “We support a rehabilitation-through-education narrative, which we know is essential to incarcerated individuals finding a pathway to a second chance and a better future.”
First established in 2015 by the Obama-Biden Administration, the Second Chance Pell Experiment was to provide Federal Pell Grants—which is the nation’s largest federal grant program for low-income undergraduates enrolled in Title IV colleges and universities—to incarcerated individuals to allow them to participate in postsecondary education programs. According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education, to date, students have earned more than 7,000 credentials, building new skills and improving their odds of success through this initiative.
Providing education in prison has indeed proven to reduce recidivism rates, and is associated with higher employment rates, which will improve public safety, and allow individuals to return home to their communities and contribute to society. Moreover, a 2018 study from the RAND Corporation, funded by the Department of Justice, found that incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 48 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than incarcerated individuals who did not participate in any correctional education programs. RAND also estimated that for every dollar invested in correctional education programs, four to five dollars are saved on three-year, re-incarceration costs.
“This is the first college degree graduation in a Hawaii correctional facility,” said Public Safety Department (PSD) Director Tommy Johnson. “Today, we are here for the commencement of seven individuals who have strived hard and applied themselves under difficult circumstances to obtain their Associate’s degree from Chaminade University of Honolulu while incarcerated. Doing so is an outstanding achievement that should be celebrated, like we’re doing here today.”
Flying in from Fort Myers, Florida, with his spouse Lory, Robert Holley couldn’t contain the emotions of the moment. Tears trickling down his cheek, he said he hasn’t been able to hug his son, Raphael, for six years. “All I want to do is hold him tight and kiss him,” Holley sobbed. “This has so much meaning, and he now has a second chance to change the trajectory of his life.”
The success of this pilot program—between Chaminade University of Honolulu and the Hawaii Department of Public Safety—demonstrates that partnerships can lead to transformative change.Dr. Janet Davidson, Chaminade University Vice Provost
Parents of Kelson Akeo, Marlene and Daniel Akeo of Kona, Hawaii Island, expressed the same sentiments, adding that they were amazed when their son first received his GED in Arizona. “He never liked school,” Marlene Akeo said. “So, for him to get his Associate’s degree is exciting and a big deal.”
Meanwhile, Daniel Akeo offered his son some fatherly advice: “You can choose to use your brains … or your back.” The younger Akeo has chosen his mind.
“We are the founders of a new path here at Halawa,” said Kelson Akeo, in a pre-recorded video message. “We want to show the future cohorts that a higher education is obtainable just as long as they’re willing to commit.”
Chaminade Vice Provost Dr. Janet Davidson, along with the support of many faculty members, committed to this Second Chance program back in the Fall of 2021. And despite the challenges of COVID, Davidson was determined to see this program through its completion.
“The success of this pilot program—between Chaminade University of Honolulu and the Hawaii Department of Public Safety—demonstrates that partnerships can lead to transformative change,” Davidson said. “With the support and guidance of Chaminade’s distinguished faculty and support staff, and the cooperation and backing of Halawa Correctional Facility, these individuals have embraced the opportunity to redefine their futures. This program is part of Chaminade’s mission to educate for service, justice and peace. We hope that with their newly gained education, these students will have the skills needed to rebuild their lives upon reintegration into society.”
The youngest among the graduates, Raphael Holley, 23, plans to continue his education, hopefully to one day pursue a doctorate in business with a concentration in accounting. “This is just the beginning to a new life,” Holley said with a wide smile. “This is my greatest accomplishment so far and I’m going to have many more.”
As a Nation of second chances, it is critical that the United States’ criminal and juvenile justice systems provide meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation and redemption. Every year, more than 640,000 people are released from State and Federal prisons, according to a White House briefing. And more than 70 million Americans have a criminal record that creates significant barriers to employment, economic stability and successful reentry into society.
As the U.S. Commander in Chief, President Joe Biden has supported educational access for incarcerated students, declaring in A Proclamation on Second Chance Month, 2022: “My Administration recognizes that making the criminal and juvenile justice systems more equitable, just, and effective requires a holistic approach.”
Words that resonate with Babington. “The Catholic, Marianist education you have experienced has prepared you well for these challenges,” she told the graduates. “You have received an excellent, integrative education—holistic by design with a strong focus on the importance of serving others for the common good.”
In his closing remarks, Johnson asked Dr. Babington two questions: “When will the next program begin? And can we expand to other facilities?”
Without hesitation, Babington responded, “The next class starts in the Fall and, yes, we want to expand this program to other facilities.”
Now that’s good news, and it means more second chance commencement ceremonies to come.