As the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads in Hawaii nei, the community relies on the government to protect the people from harm, all the people. “Social distancing” is necessary now, to flatten the curve of the new, deadly and continuously spreading COVID-19, and to prevent the suffering and death that will inevitably occur when our hospitals are overwhelmed.
However, for the thousands of individuals held in Hawaii’s overpopulated jails and prisons, social distancing is impossible.
While we acknowledge the efforts of the state Department of Public Safety (PSD) to address COVID-19, we emphasize the pressing need to reduce the populations in our correctional facilities, known incubators for infection. Small steps in the face of rapid community spread are insufficient; Hawaii must do more if we are to have any hope of containing the spread of COVID-19.
The department could accelerate releases of the medically fragile and individuals on furlough and extended furlough. The state could release low-level, nonviolent lawbreakers as Los Angeles, New Jersey and many other jurisdictions are doing and the Hawaii public defender and others recommend. The Hawaii Paroling Authority could utilize new procedures for parole hearings using technology and review their files for early discharges.
As COVID-19 cases increase statewide, immediate action is necessary to do everything possible to stop the spread and the burden that this disease will place upon our health-care infrastructure. Correctional facilities must treat this coronavirus as a dire public health threat and a potential systemwide emergency; our leaders must take decisive action.
The PSD staff who keep the facilities running are screened upon entry. They must also be screened before exit for possible transmission of this disease to their families and to the larger community. The department must provide employees with the education, tools and resources for infection control to protect those who work and live in facilities.
The following is a list of urgent actions the state can, and should, take to protect those under its custody and care. Forward-thinking departments are taking these steps across the country; Hawaii should not wait.
>> Work with the Hawaii Paroling Authority to immediately release the most medically fragile persons to community or family care.
>> Test all incarcerated people and staff with “fever, cough, shortness of breath” symptoms as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates.
>> Release low-level pretrial detainees on unsecured bail or via administrative authority and technical parole or probation violators.
>> Delay the start date of scheduled incarceration terms when practical.
>> Develop a publicly-available outbreak prevention and response plan, in coordination with the Department of Health, CDC guidance and medical best practices.
>> Eliminate the required copay for inmate medical unit visits; treatment should not be dependent upon a person’s ability to pay.
>> Educate the incarcerated and the staff on PSD’s COVID-19-related policies and procedures, and ways to protect themselves and others from infection.
>> Implement required screening and hygiene protocols for those exiting facilities, in addition to those entering.
>> Provide ample access to necessary sanitation, cleaning and hygiene supplies at no cost.
>> Eliminate or reduce the exorbitant prison phone fees and offer free phone and video visits to all inmates.
>> Work with the Judiciary and paroling authority to develop temporary probation and parole procedures to ensure that social distancing can be maintained.
>> Communicate all COVID-19-related plans and directives to the public for transparency and accountability.
Everyone has to kako‘o to stop the spread of this disease. We offer these suggestions in the spirit of aloha; we seek to ensure that our brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers inside, whom our state is sworn to protect, will not be forgotten.
Kat Brady is coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons. Other co-signatories for this piece: Common Cause Hawaii – Sandy Ma; Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii — Nikos Leverenz; Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justice — Lorenn Walker; Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center — Heather Lusk; Hawaii Innocence Project — Ken Lawson, co-director; Hawaii Justice Coalition — Carrie Ann Shirota; Life of the Land — Henry Curtis; Medical Legal Partnership Hawaii — Deja Ostrowski; Young Progressives Demanding Action; Robert Merce, vice chairman of HCR 85 Task Force; Justice Steven H. Levinson (Ret.); Dr. Marilyn Brown; Dr. Robert Perkinson; Dr. Barbara B. Polk; Aaron Wills; Richard Sing; Daphne Barbee-Wooten; and Myles Breiner.