Post-incarceration life for the Pacific Islander community in Salt Lake City

Story and infographic by GEORGE W. KOUNALIS

According to the Utah Department of Corrections statistics, Pacific Islanders make up 3 out of every 100 inmates in their population.

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR), said, “Pacific Islanders are 1 percent of the general population in Utah, 4 percent of the prison population, and it’s not getting any better.”

The question arises, what resources are there for those leaving the prison system and what can society do to give former inmates a second chance?

“The color of your skin makes a huge difference. I’m not being racist, I’m speaking from experience,” said Randy Tinoga, 46, in a phone interview about life after prison.

Tinoga came from Hawaii to Utah in 1999. He moved to get away from a meth addiction. In 2002 Tinoga relapsed and went through multiple drug rehabilitation facilities across Salt Lake City. Odyssey House was his last inpatient residential program, and soon after leaving, he began using again in a much bigger manner.

Tinoga received charges in 2005 and was sent to federal prison January 2006 and released in April 2011. Tinoga was put on probation through the federal system until 2014. After getting in trouble, Tinoga has stayed in Utah and has not returned to Hawaii.

When inmates are released they are required to spend six months in a federal halfway house. During that time period, they have to find employment and then they’re expected to contribute back to society.

“The resources are out there, people are afraid to take a chance on a federal felon,” Tinoga said about his post-incarceration life.

“Every person in federal prison feels like you’re starting one to two laps behind everyone else,” Tinoga said. “If you’re a Polynesian convicted felon, you feel like you’re five steps behind everyone else.” These statements speak to what the prison system does to those who go through it and the impact the system has on minorities.

Tinoga said the most important thing needed outside of prison is a telephone and family. “Without a family, you’re playing catch up,” Tinoga said. “Most Polynesians incarcerated come from strong families. They do have a strong support system.”

The concept of family is a significant aspect of Pacific Islander culture. “The collectivist perspective is very important to the Pacific Islander community,” said Oreta M. Tupola, community health worker section coordinator with the Utah Public Health Association.

Tinoga is living in Salt Lake County and involved with PIK2AR’s Kommitment Against Violence Altogether (KAVA) talks, a Pacific Islander male domestic violence advocacy group. “My transition back to public life was easier on my part,” Tinoga said. “If you want to make a change, you have to take a chance! If someone is willing to take a chance on a Polynesian American, take a chance on them.”

Pauliasitolo Vainuku, 39, describes his life after leaving prison. Vainuku went to federal prison for a bank robbery. He was released from prison and had his probation terminated in January 2018.

“A lot of things in our culture, we don’t like to talk about,” Vainuku said in a phone interview. “Abuse is there and it’s not talked about. That’s how a lot of Pacific Islanders join a gang because there’s a cultural understanding there for them.”

Tupola said, “Family is important in Pacific Islander culture. Gangs are from a loss of that identity and trying to look for it again.”

This is where groups like PIK2AR’s KAVA talks come in. They can help those who are struggling with abuse.

Vainuku’s brother, who was involved in a gang, was killed when Vainuku was 12. “After his death I was depressed. I had nobody to talk to,” he said.

Vainuku then turned to robbing at the age of 12. “When you’re depressed you don’t care,” he said. “Certain things you do make you feel alive,” he said, describing how his robbing began.”If you keep doing the same things it becomes normal.”

A couple of months after turning 18, Vainuku was sent to federal prison. “For me it was actually getting away. Getting locked up made me able to escape reality,” he said.

Vainuku said after getting out of prison, there were resources available to him. “There’s a second chance bill that lets small businesses hire us and they bond them for hiring us.” The Second Chance Act of 2007 “was enacted to break the cycle of criminal recidivism; improve public safety; and help state, local, and tribal government agencies and community organizations respond to the rising populations of formerly incarcerated people who return to their communities.”

The bill gives the small business a bond that provides insurance in case a former inmate ends up robbing or doing damage to the business as well as a tax break for the business. Bills like this give former inmates of the federal prison system a second chance.

Vainuku spent six months in a federal halfway house while he worked and saved money to live independently. “The federal halfway house makes you actively look for employment,” Vainuku said.

These programs help federal prisoners when they adjust on the outside, but Utah State prisoners don’t receive many of these resources, according to Vainuku.

According to the Utah Department of Corrections, mental health resources are offered at Utah State Prison for prisoners within the system. “We’re coming out and not getting the help and support with mental health,” Vainuku said. “For the guys in prison, they need to get help in prison and get ready to come out.”

A May 2017 article in the Deseret News backs up what Vainuku said. Many of those in the Utah corrections system are not receiving appropriate care when they leave prison.

Vainuku said the state of Utah could do more to help inmates coming out. “In the state prison, they’re stuck in a cell with their cellie and get a packet. They’re not getting classes or help for life on the outside.” According to Vainuku, this packet is the only resource that state prisoners in Utah receive prior to being discharged.

Racial prejudice within jail is also a factor that makes it difficult for inmates. “Prison is a negative setting, the guards tend to get stuck in a negative mindset with an us versus them mentality,” Vainuku said. “The guards build a prejudice and they do things that upset the prisoners more.”

Tinoga said, “Stereotypes are bad all the way around. A good number of Polynesian men are first-time offenders.” Stereotypes of Pacific Islander men being pushed by society at large creates very negative environments that can hinder the lives of many of these men.

It’s important for society to look beyond stereotypes and give former inmates a second chance. “Just giving someone the opportunity helps,” Vainuku said. “Look at the individual instead.”

Many of these changes that society needs start at a community level. Challenge stereotypes, give individuals a second chance. Community-driven resources are also important.

In a 2016 Seattle Times article, Sarah Stuteville talks about the Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (F.I.G.H.T), a group of former Pacific Islander and Asian inmates who work to provide resources to those leaving the Washington State penal system. The Utah Department of Corrections does offer programs to inmates, however, nothing specifically like the F.I.G.H.T group offered in Washington state.