Historic Lahaina – Hale Pa’ahao

Entrance to Hale Pa'ahao Prison in Lahaina
Hawaii Aloha Travel > Blog > Historic Lahaina – Hale Pa’ahao

The Lahaina Historic Walking Trail features more than two dozen sites. From the ancient Hauola Healing Stone to the famous Pioneer on the Front Street waterfront, it offers many glimpses into the life of Hawaii’s original capital city. Among the highlights is Hale Pa’ahao, a former prison for wayward souls during the Historic Lahaina whaling heyday that was completed in 1853. 

Hale Pa’ahao means “stuck in irons” in Hawaiian. And inmates were stuck in irons, literally. Two cellblocks, one for men and one for women, had iron chains on the walls and other restraints, including the “ball and chain”. As Lahaina’s resident and whaling ship population increased, so did the threat to public safety.  

Iron relics outside the walls of Hele Pa'ahao Prison in Lahaina
A ship’s anchor and other iron relics at Hale Pa’ahao Prison.

Historic Lahaina – Housing unruly sailors

Ill-behaved sailors became more common, and the need to control them grew. The old fort on the waterfront was razed and its large coral blocks were used to build the walls of Hale Pa’ahao. A watchhouse was built over the entrance between the walls. It was also the home of the prison warden.  

It was initially intended to hold prisoners in the short term. Often, when their crews were jailed at night for any of many offenses (we’ll get to a few of them below), ships’ captains would often turn up at hale Pa’ahao the following morning to collect their bleary-eyed and hungover sailors. 

Cell block exterior at Hale Pa'ahao Prison.
A recreation of a Hale Pa’ahao Prison cell block.

Life inside Hale Pa’ahao Prison

At night, prisoners were shackled in their cells. During the day, however, they were allowed to roam freely in the open space within the walls of Hale Pa’ahao. They played cards, smoked tobacco, and even enjoyed meals brought in by family and friends from the outside. But the rules were changed in 1857, with much more stringent restrictions and enforcement.  

Eventually falling into disrepair, Hale Pa’ahao was restored by workers as part of the Works Projects Administration, a vital program to get Americans working during the Great Depression. More renovations and improvements were undertaken in the 1960s. Today, it’s a quiet, peaceful stop along the Lahaina Historic Walking Trail. 

The open yard at Hale Pa'ahao Prison in Lahaina.
Nice place for a picnic.

It’s free to enter, although donations to the Lahaina Restoration Foundations, which maintains the historic Lahaina site. It’s an ideal spot for a picnic lunch on the grass in the shade, and just two blocks from the bustling sidewalks of Old Lahaina Town

While wandering the modest grounds (less than an acre), you can ponder the variety of offenses that would land a prisoner within its walls. They included drunkenness, profanity, furnishing intoxicating beverages to native Hawaiians, breaking the sabbath, “felonious branding”, giving birth to bastard children, lascivious conduct, aiding deserting seaman, and lewd conversation. 

Walls of Pa'ahao prison in Historic Lahaina
The walls of Hale Pa’ahao Prison are made of coral block taken from the old Lahaina Waterfront fort.

It’s easy to imagine the “Wild West” atmosphere of Lahaina during the peak of the whaling era and the unfriendly conditions at Hale Pa’ahao. Even on breezy days, Lahaina can get uncomfortably hot on sunny days. It must have been miserable for prisoners in the time of cholera, smallpox, and other epidemics. 

Hale Pa’ahao is itself a historic artifact. It is a relic of an age during which Hawaii’s colonization was in full swing and serves as a vivid reminder of the answer to the question posed by the famous old sea shanty “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?” Hale Pa’ahao!