You can see it on Mokulele Highway Near the half-way point between Central Maui and South Maui among the cane fields it comes into view even though you can’t make out the ocean yet. It is the barren, dry, and brown island of Kahoolawe. The island shimmers in the leeward heat and peaks above the green cane fields.
The island can be seen from just about any point in Kihei and parts of the road to Lahaina. It serves as a mysterious backdrop to the vistas and views of lavish hotels, homes, golf courses, and condominiums in Wailea. On the beach at Makena you’re confronted with it head on. The large cliffs and white caps shimmer in the distance.
This little island (it’s the smallest of the eight major Hawaiian Islands) has remained uninhabited for as long as I could remember. In fact, generations have gone without anyone remembering when a sustainable population lived on the island.
Although its brown hills, red summits, and golden sand beaches look unchanged over the years, the island has had a colorful history. It should be no surprise to anyone that the first folks to use the island were the Native Hawaiians. The remnants of fishing villages, heiau, and other altars have been discovered again. It is also believed that the island served as a training ground for navigators who were able to sail thousands of miles to the South Pacific.
But even then the island was a faraway place that could never support a permanent population. Water was scarce and it was terribly isolated. Kahoolaweans periodically left the island and headed to Maui during the rainy winter months.
These harsh features proved to be a worthy place for a grand experiment in Hawaii’s early criminal justice system. For nearly thirty years the hot and barren island was a penal colony for the kingdom’s offenders.
The venture started with Queen Kaahumanu after she came into power during the early days of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Influenced by missionaries, the queen converted to Christianity and adopted a moral code of behavior for herself and the rest of her subjects. Along with a group of chiefs, Queen Kaahumanu agreed that Kahoolawe would be a place of exile. If offenders violated the new laws, off they went. Shipping an offender out to some distant and isolated place was a new alternative to the traditional punishment of death or in some cases no punishment at all.
In 1824, Kahoolawe became the place to send transgressors of her newly-initiated code of conduct. A few years later, the criminal laws were refined so that exile to the island was reserved for certain offenses like adultery and prostitution. Exile was often announced, but seldom carried out.
It took two years after the change in the law to actually send prisoners there. The first two—a prostitute and a thief—were sent out in 1826. The conditions of their confinement and how they carried out their sentence once they got there are lost to history.
Others followed. At first both male and female offenders were sent out there. Adulterers, prostitutes, rum runners, and thieves apparently made a home for themselves until women were shipped to Lanai instead by the 1840s.
Things changed when a high-ranking chief named Kinimaka was exiled to the island for after he had been convicted of forging a will. The will proved to be quite important since it devised a great deal of lands on Maui. Kinimaka was like a celebrity and exiling him to the island made him the chief of Kahoolawe. Kinimaka soon had a fleet of boats, a thriving village, and ordered inmates swim to Maui to gather supplies and food. So much for punishment.
Kamehameha III later declared clemency to the Kahoolawe prisoners. Kinimaka and the others left the island and went to their respective homes. Still, the island remained a penal colony for the kingdom. Offenders were sent there until it was abandoned all together in 1851 and the kingdom started a different form of punishment that remains part of our system to this day: prison.
Although the penal colony experiment was never revived in the islands again, Kahoolawe remained a lonesome little island. Nothing remains of the penal villages anymore. Other major events took over the island and to this day it is still inaccessible for most of us.
Nowadays it would seem laughable to revive the idea of a penal colony. But why not? We have prisons in the heart of Oahu and for more than ten years we send offenders to private prisons on the mainland. Lawsuits from inmates have sparked in response to the denial of what the inmates call a violation of their traditional rights as Native Hawaiians. Perhaps a prison on Kahoolawe isn’t so far-fetched.