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Hundreds of Hawaii inmates freed from overcrowded facilities to limit exposure to COVID-19

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  • DENNIS ODA / NOV. 21
                                Prison guards watch as inmates walk out of one of the modules with clean clothes at the Halawa Correctional Facility in November.

    DENNIS ODA / NOV. 21

    Prison guards watch as inmates walk out of one of the modules with clean clothes at the Halawa Correctional Facility in November.

More than 650 inmates at Hawaii’s correctional centers have been released since March in the ongoing effort to reduce crowding in jails and prisons and to limit inmates’ exposure to COVID-19.

Hundreds of cases have yet to be reviewed.

From March 2 through Tuesday, the overall population at the state’s jails has dropped by 811 inmates, and 655 of those inmates were released early after expedited court reviews of motions filed by the Office of the Public Defender and other attorneys, according to a report Thursday by Special Master Daniel Foley.

The Office of the Public Defender filed most of the 1,088 motions for early release that have been decided by the courts, meaning over 400 inmates were denied early release.

The Hawaii Supreme Court ordered those expedited court reviews after the Office of the Public Defender in March filed a motion to release certain nonviolent inmates from Hawaii’s jails and prisons on a case-by-case basis to ease their crowding, which could put inmates at greater exposure to the coronavirus.

Foley reported that there have been no positive COVID-19 cases in the state’s correctional centers and facilities.

But even with the unloading of inmates over the past two months, the Office of the Public Defender is still concerned about overcrowding.

In a letter dated Wednesday to Foley, the Office of the Public Defender said that “all community correctional centers, with the exception of the Kauai Community Correctional Center, continue to operate well above design capacity. OPD continues to be concerned that additional steps need to be taken to further reduce the jail population.”

As of Thursday, KCCC’s inmate population was 84, and its design capacity is 110 inmates, according to Foley’s report.

In an interim order issued April 24, the Hawaii Supreme Court said that inmate populations have to be reduced to their design capacity.

Oahu Community Correctional Center is still about 150 inmates above design capacity; Maui Community Correctional Center is about 70 inmates above design capacity; and Hawaii Community Correctional Center is about 20 inmates above design capacity.

The Public Defender’s office wants more to be done to reduce jail populations, noting in its letter ongoing problems, including inmates who are being detained only because they cannot post bail and the determination of a “significant risk to the safety of the inmate or the public” when deciding whether to release an inmate early.

The letter also said most of the motions were decided without a hearing.

“It is the OPD’s understanding that a number of the motions were summarily denied without a hearing and were deemed inappropriately filed because they had already been ruled upon,” it said.

Despite the complaints by the Public Defender’s office, Foley appeared pleased with the progress so far.

“While the reduction has not been as sweeping and immediate as some who have wanted, the releases are being made in a deliberate and thoughtful manner and have resulted in a significant decrease in the inmate population,” he wrote in his report.

Foley said another large reduction in the state’s jail population will “inevitably” take place in May, as the Hawaii Paroling Authority anticipates reviewing over 430 cases that involve possible early release. Another 60 cases are scheduled for administrative review.

The cases the Hawaii Paroling Authority will review are for inmates at state prisons who already have been sentenced but are seeking parole because their sentences have been almost entirely served or because they are at a higher risk of getting COVID-19.

The Public Defender’s office expressed its concern that not enough has been done to reduce the inmate population at Halawa Medium Security Facility. The Office of the Public Defender said the prison is still operating above design capacity.

The motions by the Public Defender’s office were for state jail inmates who are on probation with jail time or are pretrial inmates.

The Public Defender’s office also wants the Hawaii Supreme Court to have the Department of Public Safety report on the 1,100 inmates who are part of Hawaii’s correctional system but are located at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz.

The Public Defender’s office, along with the Correctional System Oversight Commission, is looking for information such as the number of inmates being housed per cell and the size of those cells and if personal protective equipment is being provided to inmates.

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