Images by Marie Eriel Hobro & John Hook

“It’s going to sound kind of weird, but I originally got into baking because I used to sell and make drugs,” Tricia Liupaono says. “When you cook cocaine, it’s a chemistry, and pastry is a chemistry.”

Liupaono, who was convicted on drug charges and served four years in state prison, now works as a pastry cook and baker at Aulani and Embassy Suites by Hilton in Kapolei. She has a knack for transferring her skills from the illicit to legal. Since she was released from prison in 2011, she has cooked in kitchens from Morimoto to Sullivan Family Kitchen, the production facility for Foodland and other subsidiaries, where she was promoted to manager. Before then, “the only thing I supervised and managed was dealing drugs, and it’s kind of the same concept,” she says. “I was in charge of ordering, and I never ordered fruit before, but I knew the concept of supply and demand, and I knew how to buy wholesale, break it down to make it a profit.”

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While the state doesn’t keep data on the professions of former inmates, anecdotal stories indicate many find their ways into the restaurant and food industry. “There are so many convicts and felons that are really good at [working in restaurants],” Liupaono says. In some ways it is a natural fit for those who eschew office jobs, who can take the hot and physical labor that restaurant work entails, and, like Liupaono, who enjoy the adrenaline rush.

The food industry was also one of the few avenues available to her after prison. “It’s not that I only wanted to do culinary,” she says. But her conviction of distribution of a dangerous drug precluded her from jobs in the travel and nursing fields, other areas in which she was interested. In the restaurant industry, she says, people “never did discriminate who I was, where I came from, never judged me. It’s such a big and huge industry that they need people. Do you need a background check to cook turkey and flip burgers or chop onions? No. You can take it as far as you want. As soon as you get your foot in the door, as soon as they see who you are as a person, the criminal record fades away and they don’t care about it anymore.”

And the restaurants need them. In Hawai‘i, the restaurant and food service industry employs 14 percent of the labor force, second only to the government. In addition, Hawai‘i’s unemployment rate hit a record low of 2 percent in December 2017, shrinking the labor pool and making it difficult for employers to find people. Add to that the lowest wages out of any major occupational group—restaurant workers earn an average of $22,165 annually—and it’s easy to see why there’s a constant labor shortage in the industry.

Russell Siu, chef and owner of 3660 on the Rise and Kaka‘ako Kitchen, has for years hired former inmates and inmates on work furlough. “It’s hard to find help,” he says. “And we like to give them the opportunity.” Most of the people Siu hires have been convicted on drug charges; some of them go back to using and drop out of the kitchen. “There’s a 50-50 chance these workers will make it,” Siu says. Even on general terms, the restaurant industry’s turnover rate is high: 70 percent was the national average as of 2016.

Currently, Siu employs three former inmates at Kaka‘ako Kitchen. One of them, Frank Scott, 41, has worked there for five years. He began as a dishwasher and is now the front-of-house manager, one of the first people you meet when entering the restaurant. He was in and out of prison on theft and drug paraphernalia convictions starting at age 26. After prison, he thought he would go into construction. “I didn’t want to use my brain,” he says. Instead, through a friend, he heard about the job opening at Kaka‘ako Kitchen. Since then, he has learned to write checks and manage people. “I have to say, I think I should have been doing something like this,” he says. “I’m such a social person. I like to talk to people and so forth. It doesn’t bother me to actually hold a conversation with people.” Siu’s wife, Marcy Uyehara, who runs Kaka‘ako Kitchen, calls him “Mr. Aloha.” Over the span of an hour, he leaves our conversation three times—to follow up on an older couple’s dinner order and to greet regulars with a kiss on a cheek. He says people even recognize him from his cameos on OC16’s The Champ Show and Terrace House, a Japanese reality TV series.

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That’s the thing about restaurants: They are large, consumer-facing businesses where, in the end, no one cares whether you’re a Harvard grad or a convicted felon, as long as you can do the work.

It makes sense, then, that the Women’s Community Correctional Center on O‘ahu’s east side offers for-credit culinary classes through Kapi‘olani Community College, which Liupaono signed up for when she was incarcerated. “I was scared and worried about finding a job,” she says. “With a felony background, I really don’t know where I would have been, what I would have done when I got out of jail, if I would have gone back to selling drugs, if I didn’t have [culinary] as my backup.” Since leaving the Women’s Community Correctional Center, Liupaono has earned an associate degree in pastry arts from Kapi‘olani Community College. She has worked at events like the Hale ‘Aina Awards, and has even helped organize a KCC fundraiser benefiting women.

Hawai‘i’s recidivism rate of 52 percent suggests that a job alone isn’t enough to keep former inmates from returning to prison. But for Scott, the bonds that kitchen culture forges, with its high-intensity environment and close interactions with other workers, helps. “I always keep that in the back of my mind—I can always get in trouble,” he says. “I separate myself from the friends I knew. I keep my circle small. And I work. I think about this place a lot. Sometimes I even dream about this place. It’s a business and it’s family. My boss is like my mom. She’s on me all the time: ‘If I ever catch you with drugs…’ We’ve become really close, and it’s kept me out of trouble.” Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Scott is at the restaurant.

Inside the prisons, some programs use growing food to teach focus and discipline, skills the inmates will need for jobs once they get out. Waiawa Correctional Facility, formerly a military installation, was converted to a minimum-security prison in 1985, and its prison farm program began in 1987. Across Waiawa’s nearly 200 acres are prison facilities, an 8-acre farm, an aquaponics farm, a fruit orchard, a koa forest that the prison maintains for University of Hawai‘i researchers, and a Christmas tree farm that supplies state, city, and county agencies. Here, at almost 1,000 feet in elevation, where vegetation is thriving, the air feels cooler. Neat rows of lettuce stretch out in front of the barracks, and the tops of Christmas trees peek out over other trees.

Wearing faded red shirts, 37 inmates harvest lettuce from the ground, as well as vegetables including ong choy and mustard cabbage from the aquaponics setup. The farm yields 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of produce a week, supplying about 10 percent of the vegetables in Maui and O‘ahu prisons. In line with Governor Ige’s goal of doubling local food production by 2020 and recent farm-to-school initiatives, the long-term plan is for Waiawa’s farm to supplement all of the state’s prisons, as well as the state’s schools.

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Inmate Leighton Fuentes, who is in Waiawa for robbery, can name at least five varieties of lettuce grown on the farm, including Tropicana, ānuenue, and a Korean green leaf lettuce, which is his favorite. “The more you put into it, the more you can see the results,” Fuentes says. “We don’t use any pesticides or herbicides. Everything we do to keep the weeds in check, we do by hand. So if you let it slip, it’s going to show. It helps to develop a good work ethic, and helps us to work together, work in unison.”

Fuentes spends his time in the greenhouse, sprouting the seeds and transplanting the seedlings in the field. “It’s really, really satisfying to see the fruits of labor,” he says. “And it’s a peaceful respite.”

For inmate Kevin Harris, serving time for unauthorized entry into a motor vehicle, it’s caring for another living thing that gives him gratification. He monitors the fish in the aquaponics system, which, last year, yielded 1,200 pounds of fish that was given to the KCC culinary program. (They can’t be fed to the inmates, for the risk of choking on bones.) “Idle time is where we go wrong,” Harris says. “For me, it’s having responsibility [that keeps me out of trouble], and having responsibility is taking care of the fish.”

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Waiawa’s farm is not unique. Prison farms exist in many states and on much larger scales. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, inmates harvest four million pounds of vegetables, while the Cañon City prison complex in Colorado houses a 30-acre produce farm that supplies the prison. Some consider prison labor—in particular, the labor that supplies commercial businesses—exploitative. In response to protests in 2015, Whole Foods stopped selling cheese made with goat milk from Cañon City’s prison goat dairy. But others consider the labor part of a rehabilitation process, providing inmates with psychological benefits and a skillset for when they are released and enter the work force. At Waiawa, the rate varies, but inmates are paid up to $2 an hour, and there are more applicants wanting to work the farm than there are available slots. (The prison hopes to get more funding for supervisory staff positions, so that 20 to 30 more inmates can work on the farm.) Since 2011, at least eight former inmates have gone on to work in agriculture.

Over at the Women’s Community Correctional Center, the hydroponics system functions as therapy as much as it does food production. The Lani-Kailua Outdoor Circle partnered with the women’s prison to create the hydroponics program in 2008. “We built those machines from the ground up,” Liupaono says. “That whole place was all trash. There was nothing, it was all dead. [The Outdoor Circle] taught us how to do hydroponics—it was the best program I was ever in. To be able to see something grow from a seed into a big entire plant that feeds you, that whole experience was indescribable. And just to see life, see something go from nothing, being renewed, grow, it gave hope for the situation and predicament that we were in.”

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The women harvest more than 200 heads of lettuce a week, which are sold at five Foodland locations on O‘ahu. The Lani-Kailua Outdoor Circle manages the program and reinvests the profits back into it.

Hyacinth Poouahi, who has been incarcerated at the Women’s Community Correctional Center for eight years, says working the hydroponic farm has been healing and has helped her get along with others. “And I just enjoy it,” she says. “For those couple of hours that we come down here, it makes you feel like you’re not in prison, because you get to work with the land.”