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Editorial: Pursue options to move inmates

Last December, Gov. David Ige told reporters he asked the federal government about buying the Federal Detention Center (FDC) next to Honolulu’s airport to ease chronic overcrowding in Hawaii’s correctional facilities. Around the same time, patients with mysterious pneumonia-like symptoms started showing up in Wuhan, China.

Four months later, Ige is asking again — not to buy the facility, but to borrow more space — as the coronavirus hovers outside Hawaii’s overcrowded jails and prisons. Ige was right to ask then, and he’s right to ask now. Especially now.

As other states are learning the hard way, Hawaii needs to reduce the inmate population in its cramped facilities to get ahead of potential spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. While Hawaii has yet to see COVID-19 in its jails and prisons, other states have, and their response has been to release inmates by the thousands.

Hawaii cannot — and should not — go that far. Public safety demands that inmate releases be carefully limited and targeted so as not to endanger the general public. Still, the state needs options beyond the status quo. Having access to another secure facility to place inmates gives the state the flexibility to open up more space without releasing more inmates. The Ige administration should pursue the FDC option aggressively, especially since the state already contracts to house some inmates there.

The danger within prison and jail walls is real. Social distancing, with everyone wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings, is difficult if not impossible in facilities where inmates can be stacked three or four to a cell.

An uncontained outbreak within prison walls would be devastating, and not just for the inmates. It would threaten the health and safety of corrections staff and their families. It could drain the resources of health-care facilities and the equipment they need, including personal protective equipment (PPEs), already in short supply.

The state Office of the Public Defender petitioned the Hawaii Supreme Court to allow the release of up to 426 inmates, including pretrial detainees and those whose age or medical conditions make them at high risk to the coronavirus but low risk to the public.

Prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office objected on public safety grounds, and the court declined to enter a blanket order releasing a large number of inmates. Instead, it appointed a special master, Daniel Foley, to assist in the effort to reduce more quickly the inmate population without endangering the larger community.

For now, it’s a reasonable compromise. While the public defender’s office must zealously defend the interests of those it represents, those interests might not align with the needs of public safety.

For example, Honolulu’s acting prosecutor, Dwight K. Nadamoto, rightly opposed a public defender’s request to release three people charged with heinous crimes (murder, attempted murder and rape), pending trial, because of COVID-19 risks while in custody. After a case-by-case review, Nadamoto said, those defendants were not set free.

Still, the coronavirus is unpredictable. A sudden spike in cases within correctional facilities could force state officials to take swift and broader action. They will need more options, and having an alternative location such as the FDC to house inmates should be one of them.

In the meantime, the state’s Department of Public Safety must bear the burden of protecting the health of its staff, service providers and inmates. Some corrections officers have told the Star-Advertiser that they lack proper safety equipment, including masks and hand sanitizers, and that social distancing is minimal in the poorly ventilated facilities.

The department declined comment, referring instead to its response plans posted on its website. It’s good to have plans. But it’s critical to demonstrate that they are adequate — and are being followed.

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