The Community Alliance on Prisons and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii are urging the state Department of Public Safety and legislators to prepare now for the new coronavirus by having a plan in place for those incarcerated within the state system, including those in Arizona.
“Prisons and jails are the breeding grounds for infection,” says Kat Brady, coordinator for Community Alliance on Prisons, a community initiative working to develop effective interventions for Hawaii’s offenders and to improve the quality of justice in Hawaii. “They’re living in a place that’s overcrowded. People are living on top of each other.”
“One of the most urgent things is to release the medically fragile people who present no threat to public safety,” she said.
There are roughly 650 people among the 5,000 in prisons and jails considered elderly, particularly those who have gone in and out of prison since their 20s, who are in poor health and are costing taxpayers $198 a day.
They could be released to their families who want their loved ones back or to some kind of hospice care, she said.
As of Friday all Hawaii correctional facilities suspended inmate personal visits but not attorney and other other scheduled official visits.
“We understand how important visits are to the inmates as well as their family members, but we also understand that COVID-19 may eventually be present at one of our facilities and that is why, out of an abundance of caution, we are suspending personal visits at our facilities statewide,” Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda said in a written statement. “The health and safety of the public, our staff and the inmates they oversee is of paramount importance to us, and we are taking steps to protect them.”
The ACLU-Hawaii sent a letter Friday to Espinda and Shari Kimoto, deputy director for corrections, urging the department to develop a response plan in collaboration with the Department of Health and to address critical issues including educating those in custody and staff to prevent illness, provision of hygiene supplies, data collection and treatment. The letter also addressed staffing plans if staff stays home sick and if prisoners who perform tasks such as food preparation fall ill.
“Under the Constitution the over 5,000 people under (DPS’) custody across the state and in Arizona have a right to a safe environment, and here that means having a plan in case of an outbreak in jail or prison,” ACLU-Hawaii Legal Director Mateo Caballero said.
“We are concerned about cutting off visitations,” Caballero told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “People are stressed out. Visitations are ways to connect with family and friends” and will help ensure they are rehabilitated.
He said a less restrictive policy could be used, such as limiting the number of people coming into the facility at any one time. “Any suspensions should be transparent from a transparent process,” Caballero said. “I’m not sure that has happened here.”
If they do suspend visitations, there should be ways for inmates to communicate, which is sometimes difficult by phone, Caballero said.
“We sent the letter because we don’t want these types of decisions in an ad hoc, knee-jerk reaction. Instead, it should be measured, thoughtful and done in consultation with health officials,” Caballero said.
Public safety officials, in response to the Star-Advertiser’s request for comment, said, “Our Health Care Division has gone to great lengths to make sure a comprehensive plan is in place to safeguard the health of all inmates and staff in the correctional facilities. We will take their suggestions under serious consideration as we continually revise and update our plan during this fluid situation.”
No inmates are under investigation criteria for COVID-19, public safety officials said. “Health care staff have had open dialogue with the Department of Health and all facility staff have been fully briefed on the protocol.”
The health staff has also made themselves available to answer inmates’ questions and by reminding them to proactively prevent the spread of germs.