Gov. David Ige is asking President Donald Trump to allow the Federal Detention Center near Daniel K. Inouye International Airport to temporarily house state inmates to ease overcrowding in state corrections facilities in the face of the new coronavirus outbreak.
“The inmates we seek to transfer are primarily jail inmates charged with, or convicted of, crimes against persons, domestic violence crimes or violations of Temporary Restraining Orders and Protective Orders,” Ige said in a letter to Trump on Friday. “The transfers would of course be temporary and on a space- available basis.”
Ige said the state’s jail and prison facilities are operating above capacity. “A reduction of the inmate population density decreases the chance of COVID outbreaks among inmates and corrections staff, and is therefore a critical measure.”
The governor noted the state already has a standing contract to temporarily house inmates at the FDC.
The state currently has 97 inmates at the federal facility, said Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz. All were previously incarcerated at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Halawa, she said.
However, Ige said in his letter, “we were informed that the FDC is not accepting inmate transfers at the present time” despite not being at capacity.
It’s unclear how many empty beds are available at the FDC. A Star-Advertiser call to the facility’s media contact was not returned. The facility’s website says its total population of male and female detainees is 436.
Inmate rights activists said transferring detainees to the FDC will not help ease the potential for the spread of COVID-19 among the incarcerated as well as those employed at corrections facilities and their family members.
“Jails, prisons and detention centers by their very design and nature are the worst places to be in a life-threatening pandemic,” said Carrie Ann Shirota, an attorney and member of the Hawaii Justice Coalition.
“There have already been outbreaks of COVID-19 in federal detention centers and prisons,” Shirota said.
“Moving individuals from one overcrowded jail into the Federal Detention Center will put individuals and FDC staff into harm’s way,” she said. “In turn, this will not help our community to flatten the curve.”
Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons, said federal officials are already looking into releasing people and moving them to home confinement.
The state Office of the Public Defender has asked the Hawaii Supreme Court to allow certain inmates, primarily in state jails rather than prisons, to be released. No cases of coronavirus infection had been reported in Hawaii’s correctional facilities as of Wednesday, but Public Defender James Tabe and inmate advocates warn it might just be a matter of time, and that once it happens, an exponential rate of infections among inmates and corrections employees will overrun the state’s hospitals.
Attorney General Clare E. Connors and three of the state’s four county prosecutors have raised strong concerns about who can be released and under what conditions, citing public safety worries.
Honolulu Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto said Tabe’s office is seeking to release violent offenders, not just those with little potential for harming the public.
Tabe denied that seeking the release of violent offenders is part of its filings against the state.
The court on Thursday appointed retired Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Daniel Foley to be the independent special master who will weigh the arguments and make a recommendation to the justices by Thursday.
In related news Friday, Schwartz said COVID-19 test results for an OCCC inmate suspected of being infected came back negative. The inmate, who was placed in medical isolation at OCCC “out of an abundance of caution,” had exhibited clinical symptoms and was tested prior to going into DPS custody, Schwartz said.
Though Hawaii facilities have yet to register any coronavirus infections, with reports of the disease’s extensive spread in some of the country’s largest jails and prisons, the debate over releasing inmates because of the coronavirus crisis is taking place across the country.
In California, where coronavirus infections have begun to move through the state prison system, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he is granting early release to 3,500 inmates in an effort to reduce crowding. But attorneys for inmates want the state to take further measures and have taken their case to federal court, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In Hawaii, the Department of Public Safety said it has taken a number of steps to avoid overcrowding. But local prison advocates believe those steps are not effective.