TONGANS BRING FAMILY SUPPORT TO UTAH INMATES

SALT LAKE, Utah (The Salt Lake Tribune, Jan 3) - Pacific Islanders in Utah prisons are lucky their culture interprets the concept of family visits loosely.

This month, these inmates saw leaders of the state's islander community drop in for daylong holiday visits.

"In Polynesia, it doesn't matter whether you're related for you are all family, said Celeste Tonga, a member of the Utah Pacific Islander Advisory Council.

"We all take responsibility."

Organized by Utah Office of Pacific Islander Affairs Director Bill Afeaki, the group spent three days in different sections of the Draper and Gunnison prisons, talking, listening, eating, praying and even singing Christmas carols with more than 50 inmates.

"It's to stay in touch with them," said Afeaki.

"It's good. They see somebody caring."

Most Pacific Islander inmates are young men, and their crimes range from robbery to assault to homicide.

Afeaki said he finds it difficult to equate these crimes with the inmates' backgrounds.

"I know their families back on the islands," he said.

"They shouldn't really be in prison."

But Afeaki and the others don't ask what the prisoners did.

They care more about what the inmates are doing now, and their plans.

In the group visits which is one-on-one with maximum-security inmates, Afeaki said he counsels prisoners about their identities.

He also inquires about their treatment by prison officials, which he said has improved over the past four years.

And, as with any Polynesian family gathering, said Tonga, religion and food play a part in the visits.

"Inmates take turns offering prayers of different religions, and everyone eats meals of boiled banana, pork and rice together, a welcome feast for inmates weary of prison fare," Said Afeaki.

"You should see them going to town on that food."

Tonga, who has seen some of her own sons go to jail, said the families of the inmates support the visits.

"It's kind of a shameful thing for most Polynesians, but I'm sure they appreciate it," she said.

The visits are a part of what Afeaki considers a larger mission to steer islander inmates away from crime.

He said the visits have allowed him to forge relationships with the Utah Corrections Department, so it is easier for him to track inmates released from prison.

Afeaki wants to create a method for islander inmates to find employment when they are released.

"So it becomes truly a corrections process rather than a penal process."

Draper Deputy Warden of Programming Lee Liston said both the Corrections Department and prisoners benefit from Afeaki's "genuine message."

"It helps to ground them," Said Liston.

"So many people who are incarcerated have lost their foundation."

January 3, 2003

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