Lessons from a Visit to the World's Prettiest Prison

image Within a decade or so, the last remaining patient-residents of the Hawai`ian leprosy colony of Kalaupapa will die. The highest sea cliffs in the world separate the peninsula on the northwest coast of the tiny island of Molokai from the wider world. A physical quarantine, you can get to Kalaupapa from the rest of the island by foot or mule along a 2.9-mile trail, with 26 switchbacks covering 1,700 vertical feet.

When we visited last month we only had one day, so we opted instead for a short but hair-raising flight from Molokai’s “topside” airport, a battle against the strong thermal updrafts that swoop upwards over the vertical cliffs that leap upward from the Pacific Ocean.  (The supply barge wasn’t an option, as it visits just once a year.)

Soon the last patient homes will be bulldozed, and the former quarantine zone will transform into a new $40M+ national historical park. For future park visitors, much of the story of Kalaupapa will focus on the compassion of newly-sainted Father Damien and Sister Marianne, who dedicated their lives to improving the dreadful conditions of the new colony, and helped transform it into a real community. But, other lessons of Kalaupapa history deserve to be told and retold often.

IMG_0334From the mid 1860s some 8,000 native Hawai`ians were shipped to the isolated leprosy colony, most against their will and torn from their families. The legally mandated quarantine that kept patients in and visitors out wasn’t lifted until 1969 — two decades after effective drug treatments were available. The 1865 ‘Public Health Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy [on] the nation of Hawaii’ that lead to the establishment of the colony was written by a group of foreign-born physicians and Hawai`ian born missionary sons whose interests were squarely on the side of colonial control of the islands.  The Health Board chose the isolated location and purchased the land. The legislation creating the colony and exiling those from across the islands that were labeled as lepers was ostensibly about protecting public health. But the new law also leveraged a generalized fear of the disease to remove dissidents agitating for continued native Hawai`ian rule from any public sphere, reinforced the notion that the Hawai`ian Queen was unfit to lead (royalty were not exempt), while also reassuring the American public that the Hawai`ian archipelago were now “safe” to annex. As RDK Herman’s article on the history of leprosy and race in Hawai`i said it — people sent to Kalaupapa were out of sight, out of mind, out of power.

2015-11-12 10.05.30So what is the lesson of Kalaupapa? The exertion of power is most effective when it is done in ways that are invisible — or at least distractingly mislabeled.  Proclaiming a #1 health threat and stirring up a lot of public fear can be an incredibly effective way to get what you want. In his case, a really useful (and delightful) chain of islands in the eastern Pacific.  Stick that on your new national monument.