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Hawaii Supreme Court votes to end judicial oversight of COVID-19 safety measures in correctional facilities

In a 4-1 decision issued today the Hawaii Supreme Court ended judicial oversight of the state Corrections Division’s management of COVID-19 safety measures in Hawaii correctional facilities, arguing that the number of positive cases among the incarcerated population declined significantly since the court intervened in August.

Today’s order also lifts the prohibition on judges imposing bail on defendants accused of certain low-level offenses during the pandemic.

“Today, according to recent filings in this case, it appears that the rate of positive cases in Hawaii’s correctional centers and facilities has significantly declined since the petition was filed in August 2020, testing and other health and safety measures have been implemented within the correctional centers and facilities, and a vaccination program to vaccinate inmates is underway,” the justices wrote. “Thus, it appears that the conditions that necessitated swift action by this court in August 2020 are no longer prevalent. Conclusion of this proceeding is therefore appropriate.”

Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald, Justice Paula A. Nakayama, Sabrina S. McKenna and Chief Judge Lisa M. Ginoza ruled to end the court’s oversight with Justice Michael D. Wilson dissenting.

“To protect judges from the lethal threat posed by inmates who have contracted COVID-19, the Majority exercised emergency jurisdiction to suspend the rights of all inmates to appear in court pursuant to Rules 5 and 10 of the Hawaii Rules of Penal Procedure,” wrote Wilson in his dissent. “The incarcerated people of Hawaii are a more vulnerable population. They are captive. They deserve no less protection from the lethal threat of COVID-19 during the pandemic emergency. Emergency jurisdiction should be maintained by this court until the emergency ends or expert testimony establishes that reasonable measures—including reduction of the inmate population to design capacity—have been implemented to protect the incarcerated men and women of Hawaii from cruel and unusual conditions.”

Following the ruling the Hawaii Department of Public Safety announced there are no more active COVID-19 cases among inmates in Hawaii correctional facilities or at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, AZ where the state has a contract to house Hawaii prisoners.

As of April 5, 1,825 inmates in state facilities received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, or about 61% of the Hawaii’s 2,953 prisoners.

“All the credit goes to the hard-working, dedicated health care and facility staff who worked tirelessly long hours, following the pandemic plan to medically isolate, quarantine, and cohort inmates, and ultimately clear the facilities of the virus,” said Toni Schwartz, DPS’ Public Information Officer. “Our facilities have been burdened by the extreme overcrowding for decades, and now added to that are the unique challenges posed by the COVID pandemic. The Public Safety Department has a mandate to ensure the health and safety of all inmates in custody and will continue to follow the pandemic plan to mitigate spread of the virus within the facilities.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii disagreed with the high court ruling and said it is not in the interest of public safety.

“We are extremely disappointed with the supreme court’s decision,” said Wookie Kim, legal director for ACLU Hawaii. “Everything feels the same, looks the same, is the same (in Hawaii prisons and jails) So for the court to say these emergency conditions are no longer prevalent is shocking to read.”

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