Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety said it would cost more than $1 million for it to release data related to its long-standing problem with keeping inmates locked up beyond their scheduled release dates.
While government agencies have been known to charge exorbitant fees for records — impeding the release of public information — the seven- figure amount that DPS says the Honolulu Star-Advertiser will need to pay is rare.
Earlier this year, researchers who worked with a now-defunct joint program of the Department of Public Safety and University Hawaii told the Star-Advertiser that DPS data indicated that about 10% of inmates have been overdetained in Hawaii’s jails and prisons in past years, though they couldn’t tell whether all of those inmates had indeed been overdetained or if the data were just rife with errors.
DPS officials have said the 10% figure is wrong. But when the Star-Advertiser requested the underlying data that could back up that assertion, a top official with the state agency said Monday it would cost more than $1 million.
The response marked the latest frustration in attempts to obtain more information about inmates overdetained in Hawaii correctional facilities. Earlier this year, DPS said nine inmates had been held beyond their required release dates in its facilities last year, but it has continued to withhold information about the cases. DPS also denied a similar request for information last year submitted by Lawyers for Equal Justice, a nonprofit law firm that’s part of the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, which advocates on behalf of social justice issues.
For two decades, DPS has used a database system called Offendertrak to monitor information about inmates. Researchers, including Edward Suarez, who used to head the joint program between DPS and UH, called the Research and Evaluation in Public Safety program, told the Star- Advertiser that data from Offendertrak suggested large numbers of inmates were being held beyond the date they were legally supposed to be released.
If so, this wouldn’t be a new problem for Hawaii. In 2004, the state entered into a $1.2 million class-action settlement agreement to resolve hundreds of claims arising from the Department of Public Safety’s failure to release inmates on time. Defense attorneys say that problems of overdetaining inmates have persisted since the settlement and the state continues to face litigation from former inmates who say they were overdetained, sometimes for months.
The Star-Advertiser requested a dataset from Offendertrak for the years 2000 to 2018 to analyze potential overdetention rates and get a sense of whether improvements have been made since the settlement agreement. The data could also help determine whether the estimates were based on faulty data. A 2010 state audit found significant errors in Offendertrak’s inmate data and urged the department to implement fixes.
But Shelley Harrington, DPS’ Intake Services Center division administrator, said the department would have to go through the files of each inmate to verify that the information in the database was accurate before releasing it. On the low end, she estimated there were 125,000 offender records.
Harrington estimated it would take DPS employees half an hour to find each offender file and an hour to review it, resulting in 187,500 work hours. She estimated the cost at more than $1 million.
Harrington added that the cost estimate was before copying fees were applied, even though the Star- Advertiser requested only an electronic dataset.
Hawaii law allows government agencies to charge as much as $2.50 for each 15-minute period of search time; $5 for each 15-minute period used to review and segregate documents; and 50 cents per page in copying fees.
When the Star-Advertiser emphasized that it was only seeking a dataset of existing information within Offendertrak, not that it be verified, Harrington responded that releasing the information “appears to violate contractual obligations related to confidentiality.” She did not elaborate on what contract or confidentiality requirements she was referring to.
While DPS has thrown up roadblocks to reviewing its inmate data, it’s also denied requests for more information about individual inmates who were over-detained last year.
In March, DPS acknowledged that in 2018 nine inmates had been incarcerated beyond the date they were legally supposed to be released. But Harrington denied records requests for the names of the inmates and the lengths of time they were over- detained, citing ongoing investigations.
The Star-Advertiser appealed the denial to Hawaii’s Offfice of Information Practices and DPS has since released the names of seven inmates and their actual release dates, but continues to withhold the dates that DPS believes they should have been released, citing ongoing investigations. All of the cases involve inmates on Hawaii island. The appeal before OIP is ongoing and the Star-Advertiser is still looking into the inmate cases.
DPS did not respond to questions in March and again last week about when the investigations began and when they are expected to be completed. A department spokeswoman said last week that no further information could be released about the cases, including what caused the inmates to be held too long or if any DPS employee has been disciplined. It’s now been 19 months since one of the inmates was released. All of the inmates were released sometime between January and December of 2018.
“As of now, the final reports on the investigations are pending. Disclosing the initial allegations and reports now, without final reports and without any decision by the PSD director as to appropriate action, would interfere with PSD’s ability to work with other parties to prevent a reoccurrence of any late releases of inmates,” DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said by email. “Disclosure would also obviously interfere with PSD’s investigation and ability to pursue possible disciplinary action if any employees are found culpable.”
Officials also won’t say whether they have alerted the former inmates to the investigations. In March, Harrington indicated that’s not something DPS does.
While DPS continues to state that there were nine “late releases” last year, it’s not clear why they have released the names of only seven former inmates.
Lawyers for Equal Justice also sought information about overdetained inmates, filing a records request with DPS in October for all records relating to instances in which inmates weren’t released on time from the Hawaii Community Correctional Center, the jail on Hawaii island.
Several weeks later, DPS responded that based on research dating back to 2013, there were no such records.
Isaiah Feldman-Schwartz, a legal analyst with LEJ, said the firm had received tips from various sources with knowledge of the system who believed a significant number of people were being over- detained, sometimes for long periods of time, which is what prompted the records request.
“We were also told that there was definitely an intersection with mental health issues because a lot of the people who tended to be overdetained were not necessarily totally with it and may not have been totally aware of their surroundings or understood what was happening to them,” said Feldman- Schwartz. “So that was making it more difficult for them to advocate on their own behalf.”
Tom Helper, LEJ’s director of litigation, said DPS appears to be relying, at best, on hyper-technical arguments and delay to avoid releasing potentially embarrassing documents, as well as drawn-out investigations.
“They seem to be going to considerable lengths to avoid disclosing documents and relying on these apparently never-ending, open-ended investigations as an excuse not to provide information to the public,” said Helper. “And that really violates the spirit and intent of the Legislature in passing the Information Practices Act.”