The state attorney general’s decision to withhold almost all information about the apparent killing of a prison inmate late last year is being questioned by a newly appointed prison oversight commissioner, while a former director of the Hawaii prison system said information about such cases was routinely released to the public during his tenure.
The case in question involves Oahu Community Correctional Center inmate Jacob Russell, 56. Family members provided his name to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser after the state Attorney General’s Office refused to release his name or almost any other information about the events surrounding his death.
One family member said Russell had a long history of mental illness, and Russell’s family was told by authorities he was repeatedly kicked in the head during an attack at OCCC. Court documents show Russell went into a coma after the Nov. 19 assault, and a prison report said he died on Christmas morning.
Russell’s death, which police classified as a homicide, came to light only earlier this month after the clerk of the House of Representatives released the first dozen reports on inmate deaths that are required under Act 234. Russell was not identified by name in the report, which was released to the Star-Advertiser on Jan. 2.
Act 234, which was passed last year, requires the prison system to file reports with the governor that disclose the name, gender and age of each inmate who dies in custody, regardless of the cause of death.
The reports are also supposed to detail the location of the death, the cause of the death and whether there is any indication a sexual assault was involved, but the reports filed by the state Department of Public Safety included little of that information.
A spokesman for Attorney General Clare Connors has said much of the information called for in the new law is being withheld because the Department of Public Safety is subject to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, which imposes safeguards to protect patients’ private health care information.
The state does not consider the name of an inmate who dies in custody to be a public record, including those who die by suicide or homicide, he said. “At this point, under HIPAA, we don’t feel we can release the names,” said Krishna F. Jayaram, special assistant to Connors.
Prison officials did file a report Dec. 26 with the governor that noted there had been a death at OCCC that Honolulu police “initially classified as a homicide resulting from an inmate on inmate assault.” But the prison system never made a public announcement about the case, and only Friday confirmed Russell was the inmate involved after the Star-Advertiser inquired about him by name.
In the past the Hawaii prison system has repeatedly issued public statements that included fairly detailed information about prison murders and suicides, including inmates’ names. Other states such as Nevada, California, Arizona and Oregon routinely report publicly on prison and jail deaths.
Former Circuit Court Judge Michael Town, who is now a member of the state Correctional System Oversight Commission, said state lawmakers declared when they created the commission last year that “oversight has to ensure transparency” and support safe conditions for the employees, the inmates and detainees who have not yet been convicted.
“I’ve had the opportunity to read the (newspaper) about some of the unfortunate deaths in the prison, and then up jumps HIPAA,” said Town at a commission meeting Thursday. “I don’t quite understand that. I want to understand that more. We have to have transparency. We have to have safety.”
Speaking of the prison system at large, he added, “This should not be, as some people say, a trauma machine. It should be a rehabilitative, curative thing.”
Commission member Ted Sakai, a former director of the Department of Public Safety, told the Star-Advertiser that during his tenure the prison system would report events such as a killing or suicide in prison to both the governor and the heads of the public safety committees in the state House and Senate.
“I don’t recall if we put out news releases or anything like that. We certainly didn’t hide it,” he said. “I remember on the day, as soon as possible after we learned about it, we’d keep people informed that this happened.”
Sakai said the Public Safety Department at the time had no problem making public the names of victims of prison homicides and that there should be a public announcement when an inmate is killed.
Sakai said he read about the HIPAA issue, “and I really don’t know what the dynamic was there, but in terms of transparency, yeah, something like this should be made known to the public.”
As for other inmate deaths such as suicides or deaths by natural causes, “Unless it’s truly confidential or private, I think the better policy is to make it known,” he said.
Russell was arrested May 12 for stealing a vehicle and was granted supervised release that allowed him to leave OCCC later that month. He was arrested again June 20 in connection with two apparently unrelated theft charges.
He was again sent to OCCC and pleaded no contest to the auto theft and other theft charges Aug. 22. On the court documents entering his plea of no contest to the charges, Russell signed his name as “YAHWEH,” which is a Hebrew name for God that is used in the Bible.
On Nov. 4 the deputy public defender assigned to Russell requested that he undergo a mental evaluation before sentencing because Russell apparently lacked the capacity to understand the proceedings. But Russell never made it to sentencing. He was attacked at OCCC on Nov. 19 and died in a hospice facility inside the Kalihi prison on Dec. 25.
The maximum sentence for the most serious of the charges against Russell was up to five years’ imprisonment, and he likely would have been released before his sentence expired.
Michelle Yu, Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman, declined to answer questions about the police investigation into Russell’s death, saying all questions should be directed to the state Attorney General’s Office.