When an Oahu judge ordered Jacob Johnson released from jail after serving five days at the Oahu Community Correctional Center on a probation violation, Johnson assumed he was a free man.
But instead of walking out of the downtown Honolulu courthouse that day, he was rearrested and sent back to jail where he would sit for four months despite his numerous pleas to be released, according a wrongful-incarceration lawsuit filed on his behalf.
The state is now poised to pay Johnson $18,000 to settle the 2013 case — an amount that comes out to $141 for every day he was locked up.
Johnson’s case is an example of a larger problem of Hawaii inmates being held beyond their scheduled release dates, according to defense attorneys who say long-standing deficiencies with tracking inmates have yet to be resolved.
Why Johnson, who has a history of drug offenses, was wrongly jailed isn’t clear. The lawsuit claims sheriffs at the courthouse told Johnson he had a warrant and took him back to jail. The state Attorney General’s Office says in documents that OCCC hadn’t received the court order authorizing Johnson’s release.
The suit covers “the emotional stress of being locked in there and essentially begging to be released time and time again,” said Johnson’s attorney, Joseph Rosenbaum. “They continued to just ignore him until one day … they came to him and said, ‘No, we’ve made a big mistake,’ and let him out that very day.”
The state has also agreed to pay Nolan Fraser, who was an inmate at the Maui Community Correctional Center, $25,000 for being held 2-1/2 months beyond his release date more than a decade ago. Corrections staff had miscalculated his release date, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
The settlements for Fraser and Johnson are pending approval by the Legislature.
At least four other inmates are suing the state, alleging they were locked up for months beyond their release dates.
Meanwhile, officials with the state Department of Public Safety concede that in 2018 they released nine inmates after realizing they had been incarcerated beyond their scheduled release dates. However, unlike Johnson, those inmates weren’t informed that they had been held too long, and it’s not clear whether they were even aware of it.
“We don’t say, ‘Hey, you were over-detained,’” said Shelley Harrington, division administrator for DPS’ Intake Services Center. “If somebody is claiming they feel they were over-detained, they can file a tort claim with (the Department of Accounting and General Services’) risk management, or they can look at getting an attorney and filing litigation.”
The Department of Public Safety has so far refused to provide the names of the nine inmates and the lengths of time they were over-detained. Harrington said the department was still investigating the cases and that releasing that information would frustrate that process.
In addition to filing a request for documents relating to the inmates under Hawaii’s public-records law, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser also has requested evidence showing proof of ongoing investigations, but has yet to receive a response.
Defense attorneys say the problem of over-detention dates back years.
“There is a real breakdown in the system so that inmates are not properly tracked. And it is not for lack of information on this problem,” said Honolulu attorney Myles Breiner, who is representing four inmates in lawsuits against the state. “This problem has been around from time immemorial.”
The state entered into a $1.2 million class-action settlement agreement in 2004 to resolve hundreds of claims arising from the state Department of Public Safety’s failure to timely release inmates. Former inmates received $1,000 for every day of over-detention and $3,000 if they had undergone strip searches.
The process of tracking down inmates and correctly calculating release dates was a mess, according to a report filed by the claims administrator in that case, who described a process of sifting through thousands of
paper and electronic documents, some of them contradictory or deficient, while records in some cases were missing.
Harrington said that more recently the Public Safety Department has been conducting staff training to go over policies relating to tracking the release of inmates. The department is also in discussions with the Judiciary about ways to streamline processes and develop electronic transmission of documents. Currently, the systems of the Judiciary and Public Safety are completely separate, she said.
Breiner said the Public Safety Department has tried to keep the persistent problems quiet.
“It hasn’t stopped; it is still going on, and that is why it is very hushed up,” he said. “When they discover someone has overstayed, they don’t stop and contact the police department and public defender’s office. They don’t stop and contact the prior attorney’s office. They literally just grab the person and tell them to clean their stuff out and literally give them the bum’s rush and kick them out the door. And that is a consistent pattern with all of our clients on the overstays.”
“They just say you are done. You’re maxed out. They never admit it.”
Breiner’s clients include Yvonne Almond, who claims that she was held 219 days beyond her release date at the Women’s Community Correctional Center; Pisaga Saau, who alleges he remained locked up for one year longer than his 20-year sentence; and Bradley Wong, who claims he was held 349 days too long.
Breiner also represents Eric Yoshioka, who alleges he was held for 96 days beyond his sentence — and longer than the maximum allowed penalty for his underlying charge of third-degree theft, a misdemeanor. He served more than a year in jail.
Rosenbaum, the attorney representing Johnson, said the Department of Public Safety should at least let prisoners know when they realize they’ve been held too long.
“Most of them have no idea. That’s one of the main problems, is that the people have no idea or they are not sophisticated enough to know that this is actionable,” he said. “In other words, they are are like, ‘I’m out. Thank God. OK, let’s move on.’”
“You would think that the right thing to do would be to notify the people that there has been a mistake and that they have been over-detained.”