Lt. Gov. Josh Green today questioned a controversial plan to release low-risk jail inmates to try to block the spread of the new coronavirus in the state’s overcrowded correctional system, telling state senators that if corrections officials have the right personal protective gear, then “prison is safer than Costco.”
During testimony before the Special Senate Committee on COVID-19 this morning, Green said that “if you release prisoners who are already anti-social in some way, I really worry that they’re not going to listen to all the social distancing and quarantine rules.”
Green was responding to questions about a request by the Office of the Public Defender that the state immediately reduce the populations in its overcrowded state jails to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Public Defender James Tabe petitioned the state Supreme Court last month, asking the court to commute or suspend the sentences of inmates serving time for petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor offenses in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The petition also covered inmates who are serving jail time as a condition of probation for felony convictions.
The state’s jails have been overcrowded for years, with inmates routinely packed in three prisoners to a cell, and mattresses lined up on the floors of recreation areas to handle the overflow from the cells.
Green, who is a physician, said that “I do worry that close quarters could cause a mass infection.”
“If we get a big outbreak in the prisons, and they tend to be poorer health, people with a lot of chronic disease, a lot of drug addiction cases going on, we could see a big surge that takes up our ventilators” that are needed for the most critical COVID-19 cases. That could overwhelm the ventilator capacity for an entire region, he said.
He suggested prisoners who are released could be housed in tents on the grounds of correctional facilities or in a separate facility where there is some level of control, or be monitored with electronic ankle bracelets. “Thinning the population geographically probably makes sense. Releasing a lot of prisoners — that’s a policy call,” he said.
State Sen. Donna Kim suggested the inmates are probably safer inside the jails because they are not exposed to the spread of coronavirus in the larger community, and said that even if some prisoners were released, “you’re not going to let out enough to be able to have social distancing within the prisons anyway.”
“Unless you release 50 percent of them, you’re not going to achieve what you’re hoping to achieve, and the unintended consequences are huge,” said Kim, (D-Kalihi Valley-Moanalua-Halawa). She suggested the emergency is being used as “an excuse to let out prisoners early.”
Green replied that if corrections officers get masks and the appropriate personal protections equipment, “then prison is safer than Costco, if I may.”
Tabe has argued that “it is inevitable that the virus will spread into the jails and prison facilities, and, when that happens, the health and well-being of inmates and staff members will be at tremendous risk,” according to a filing by the office.
Infections within the state’s jails could then spread to the larger community as corrections officers are infected, or as inmates complete their sentences and are released, according Tabe’s filing with the state Supreme Court.
The court responded last month by instructing Tabe’s office to provide it with a list of eligible jail inmates, and Tabe submitted the names of 426 prisoners. The court then appointed retired Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Daniel R. Foley to serve as a special master and sort through the issue.
In another development, Honolulu’s Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight K. Nadamoto today announced that inmates who were proposed for release to reduce overcrowding in state jails included an accused rapist, a man charged with shooting a 71-year-old woman and another charged with attempting to murder police officers in Pearl City.
“Horrible crimes, yet the Office of the Public Defender filed motions requesting the court to set these men and dozens more free because of the possible risk they face from COVID-19 while awaiting trial,” Nadamoto said in a written statement issued this morning. “As acting prosecuting attorney, I have strongly opposed these requests.
None of those men was actually released, but Nadamoto said today the plan for wholesale releases of even non-violent offenders to reduce the jail populations is “a horrible idea.”
Tabe said in an interview he believes deputy public defenders representing the three inmates cited by Nadamoto — Wayman Kaua, Ernest Romero and Zeth Browder — proposed in court proceedings that the men be released to cope with the COVID crisis, and those requests were rejected by the courts.
Those prisoners were never on the list of 426 jail inmates that was submitted to the state Supreme Court on March 30 for consideration for release as part of the emergency coronavirus response, Tabe said.
That list did not include any serious violent offenders, and “If he’s suggesting serious violent offenders are getting released, he’s misleading the public,” Tabe said.
State Attorney General Clare Connors and three of the four county prosecutors argue that public safety considerations require that the decisions to release inmates should be considered case-by-case. That includes Nadamoto, who is seeking election this year as Honolulu prosecutor.
“Each case must be considered individually,” Nadamoto said in the statement. “Prosecutors and judges are duty bound to consider separately the reason and circumstances presented for each inmate’s request for release. An inmate’s criminal history must also be considered. A wholesale release of inmates jeopardizes public safety.”
Nadamoto said in his statement that victims must be consulted and notified before any release, and although there have been no reports yet of COVID-19 in the jails, the prisoners being released must quarantined for a minimum of 14 days to prevent the spread of the disease.