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Hawaii News

Corrections system overpopulated by 445 inmates, state says

In requesting space at Hono­lulu’s Federal Detention Center to house state inmates temporarily amid the coronavirus outbreak, state officials said its prisons have an overpopulation of about 445 individuals.

Meanwhile, a group of medical professionals from across the United States is urging the Hawaii Supreme Court to act quickly to approve a request by state Public Defender James Tabe to release up to 426 inmates mostly from the state’s four jails, arguing that a speedy decision is critical if the state wants to avoid spreading COVID-19 more quickly both within and outside the prison system.

Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the state’s director of emergency management and lead on its response to the new coronavirus, told a top official in the Federal Bureau of Prisons on Friday that allowing state inmates in the federal facility next to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport would “alleviate the overcrowded conditions at our state correctional facilities and to prevent rapid spread of COVID-19.”

The letter addressed to Michael Cantrell, chief of the Bureau of Prison’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, said how many inmates it hopes to send to the FDC “is obviously based on space available,” Hara said. The memo said current overpopulation in the state is 150 on Oahu, 150 on Hawaii island, 120 on Maui and 25 on Kauai.

A state Public Safety official said the department has not received a response to its request to use the FDC, which has a total population of 436 male and female offenders, according to the Elliott Street facility’s web site.

The state already has a contract to house a limited number of inmates at the FDC; as of Friday there were 97 state inmates there.

Carrie Ann Shirota, an attorney and a member of the Hawaii Justice Coalition, said it’s a bad idea to transfer state inmates into the FDC and that it’s “ludicrous” to consider flying 275 individuals over from other islands to Oahu, the island that has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19.

On Friday a group of local attorneys headed by Eric Seitz filed a brief in the Hawaii Supreme Court on behalf of seven public health and human rights experts urging the Supreme Court to act quickly on the Office of Public Defender’s request to release up to 426 inmates mostly from the state’s four jails.

The court Thursday assigned retired Appellate Judge Daniel Foley to serve as neutral special master in the case. Foley has until Thursday to submit an initial summary report.

The Seitz filing said that timeline may not be quick enough to stem the potential for community spread. The pandemic requires proactive social distancing steps, and “the realities of prison life create a ‘tinder box,’ which means that once a virus enters a jail, the infection will spread quickly,” the filing said.

State Attorney General Clare Connors and three of Hawaii’s four prosecuting attorneys argue that public safety considerations require that the decisions to release inmates should be considered case-by-case.

Toni Schwartz, Department of Public Safety public information officer, said that even without court-mandated releases, the total population of the state’s four jails had dropped to 1,685 as of Monday, down from 2,189 inmates on March 2, as a result of independently issued court orders.

“This is due to the huge efforts made by the Judiciary, our local police departments and PSD’s Intake Service Division as they work together to limit the number of people requiring admittance into the jails,” Schwartz said.

Correction: Attorney and Hawaii Justice Coalition member Carrie Ann Shirota’s last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story, and in the Tuesday print edition.

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