As the United States continues to discuss the problematic history behind the prison-industrial complex, the Brandeis Asian American Task Force screened the documentary “Out of State,” which narrates the journey of two native Hawaiians, David and Hale, as they reconnect to their cultural heritage and struggle to readjust to everyday life as formerly incarcerated men. 

Native Hawaiian filmmaker Ciara Lacy’s first feature-length film, “Out of State” illustrates both the environment within Arizona’s private prison facilities and the lasting effect of the prison system, as past inmates struggle to relearn how to reintegrate into their communities. The documentary highlights how the struggles of surviving prison helped David and Hale find their cultural Hawaiian identities.

While mass incarceration is an ongoing struggle in America as many are imprisoned for minor drug or theft offenses, the term “prison-industrial complex” denotes the rapidly increasing rate of minority individuals incarcerated in private prisons, which often use these inmates to maximize corporate profit. However, those incarcerated in the state of Hawaii face a unique consequence of this underlying issue. Due to overcrowded and understaffed prison facilities in Hawaii, many incarcerated individuals have been sent to private prisons in the mainland U.S. According to both the Honolulu Civil Beat and Kitv Channel 4 via independent research, this was the result of a July 1, 2016 contract between the Hawaii Department of Public Safety and the Corrections Corporation of America. This contract extended the 1995 mainland prison operation and outsourced Hawaiian prisoners to mainland private prisons, such as Saguaro Correctional Center, the facility where this documentary takes place.

“I didn’t know who I was,” explained David, reflecting on his time prior to Saguaro. “You need to know your culture,” he added, a sentiment that was shared by other inmates in the prison in the documentary. 

Connecting and understanding one’s culture does more than just establish an identity, it connects one to a community and a historical legacy, the documentary suggests. Hale, another prisoner released from Saguaro, recounted that on the first day he was brought to the facility, he was taught the Ha’a Koa, a traditional type of Hawaiian Dance that represents the Dance of the Warrior, by the Ka’iana, the cultural advisor. Hale described the way he “was instantly drawn to the chant” involved in the dance.

He realized that “he would not have learned that if [he] wasn’t [sic]in prison,” and began to ask why he had not been  exposed to his culture before. In his reflection, he noted that he “used to take from people; but the more [I] understood my culture, the more I understood myself,” asserting, “First and foremost, I am Hawaiian.”

Inside the Arizona prison, the film notes that the inmates were separated based on their indigenous heritage. In one of the first interactions in the film, prison guards only permitted David to reside with Native Hawaiians, keeping other Native American prisoners separated from the Native Hawaiian prisoners. 

The film also sheds light on the difficulties faced by former inmates trying to rejoin the working class outside of prison and establish a new life. After being institutionalized for a significant portion of their lives, they struggled to find jobs and had difficulty supporting their families, despite being willing and determined to become mentors for their community. 

After the film, Prof. Leanne Day (AAPI), the University’s Florence Levy Kay Fellow in Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies, opened a discussion with Director Lacy. They discussed how the themes in the film can be seen in different aspects of society. In reflecting on the Q&A session, Southeast Asia Club’s vice president Chris Caroline-Calimlim ’19 explained that “it was especially powerful to be able to talk with Ciara Lacy,” as “she provided insight as to what the documentary meant within her community of native Hawaiians, as well as what she hoped the documentary would mean to people outside the community.” The documentary is especially powerful for Caroline-Calimlim because it “captures both the struggle that people face when trying to reconnect with culture that has been largely erased and the immense power that culture has to help people survive.”

In an additional interview with the Justice, Day explained that the film  “demonstrates the necessity and value of cultural practices through hula and learning Hawaiian for Kanaka Maoli men who are imprisoned.” She explained that she sees this as crucial because “it is only through being removed from Hawaii to the mainland and being incarcerated that they are able to find culture as a  means of survival.” 

She explained that one of the more important messages for her is that “this narrative is not only applicable to indigenous populations, but also the high numbers of incarcerated people of color.” She explained that the audience is left questioning “how to re-enter the community, and how might cultural identity assist with this process.”  

The documentary was awarded the 2017 Liberty Bell Award, the Best Made in Hawaii Feature at the Hawaii international Film Festival, and the 2017 Hawaii Film Festival Award. This event was co-sponsored by the offices of German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature, the American Studies, the Anthropology, the WGS and the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

Editor's Note: The headline was altered for accuracy to the content.