Since the beginning of March, Hawaii residents have been consumed with worrying about a litany of things — where to buy toilet paper, how to properly wash one’s hands, how to get fabric to make face masks, confusing directives that said swimming in the ocean was allowed but standing on the sand was not — and for many people the biggest, most frustrating worry has been how to navigate the state’s maddening unemployment filing system so they can get money to pay bills and buy food.
With all that going on, it’s been hard to have any mental energy to worry about the hundreds of inmates being released from custody out into the struggling, anxious community.
Now, to be sure, it’s not like the gates were thrown open and just anybody was released. There was a case-by-case review by a special master. But now that the first wave has been set free, the next set must be getting a little bit deeper down the list.
The state attorney general and three of the four county prosecutors want the inmate releases to stop or at least pause for a bit, which seems wise since much has happened in the weeks since the releases started, including the containment of the virus in the community, the lack of the virus in any of the correctional facilities and, sad to say, the seven inmates who were released only to have re-offended almost immediately.
That’s not to say that everyone who comes out of prison is a threat to public safety.
Anybody who has seen “The Shawshank Redemption” (and pretty much everyone has seen it because it’s always on cable) can picture inmates who are basically good people or who have had a change of heart during their incarceration. OK, but then there’s the character Brooks Hatlen, a gentle soul who gets out, gets little support and no social structure in the outside world and ends up dying by suicide. That story is fictional but it’s illustrative. Release alone is not compassionate.
Or if it is, it’s a very specific kind of compassion. There isn’t much compassion in releasing inmates into the current state of our community where there are no jobs, no sanctioned socialization or in-person church services, and people are lining up by the thousands for boxes of free eggs and pineapples.
Letting inmates out of prison theoretically saves them from the threat of getting COVID-19 while incarcerated, but it does not save them from the threat of getting it while out in the community. It doesn’t provide a job on the outside or a way to make money except maybe to go back to the skill that got them into trouble in the first place.
There are many people to blame for Hawaii’s perpetual prison-overcrowding problem, starting with every governor who made but didn’t keep the promise to fix the system. But we’re here now, and we have more immediate things to worry about, like unemployment checks and a second wave of infections and compassion that goes a little too far with far too little structure.