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Hawaii Supreme Court blocks the early release of certain prisoners

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 2019
                                Pictured above is Oahu Community Correctional Center.

    STAR-ADVERTISER / 2019

    Pictured above is Oahu Community Correctional Center.

The state Supreme Court denied a third request by the office of the Public Defender to release certain classes of prisoners early to help alleviate the crowded conditions that help COVID-19 spread, noting rising inmate vaccination rates and a declining number of infections in Hawaii’s jails and prisons.

Between April and June 2020, 650 inmates were released to help ease overcrowding and limit conditions that make it easy for the virus to tear through modules of incarcerated people.

“The record is insufficient to warrant the extraordinary relief requested except as it relates to DPS’s (Department of Public Safety) compliance with the requirements of HRS § 353-6.2.4. Unlike when OPD filed its August 2020 petition, the total number of active positive COVID-19 cases among inmates in all Hawaii community correctional centers and facilities as of October 8, 2021 is 34. Vaccines are now widely available to all inmates, and it has been reported that statewide, as of September 14, 2021, 66% of inmates are fully vaccinated,” wrote Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald and associate justices Paula Naka­yama, Sabrina McKenna and Todd Eddins.

The justices did order DPS, including the Hawaii Paroling Authority, to comply with a package of 2019 legislative reforms that included a requirement that DPS send updates every 90 days about whether pretrial inmates should be released or remain in custody.

During oral arguments Sept. 22, there was disagreement over whether those updates were happening and Recktenwald asked if an order requiring the state to follow the reforms would help.

Public defenders use that information to file motions requesting the release of prisoners to help ease crowding.

The reforms require “the relevant community correctional centers, on a periodic basis but no less frequently than every three months, shall conduct reviews of pretrial detainees to reassess whether a detainee should remain in custody or whether new information or a change in circumstances warrants reconsideration of a detainee’s pretrial release or supervision.”

“DPS shall comply with the requirements of HRS § 353-6.2, including timely transmitting its findings and recommendations by correspondence or electronically to the appropriate court, prosecuting attorney, and defense counsel,” the justices wrote.

“The Department of Public Safety and its correctional facilities have a mandate to provide for the care and safe custody of inmates and will do what is necessary to ensure the inmates under our custody are taken care of. It is challenging but all facilities are working diligently to maintain operations for the safety and security of inmates, staff, and the general public. The well-being of all who live in, work in, and visit our facilities are of the utmost importance to the Department and many measures are in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Public Safety Director Max Otani, in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“PSD is doing everything in its power to mitigate community spread of COVID-19 into the facilities and will continue to follow the pandemic plan which is based on Department of Health (DOH) and CDC guidelines for correctional facilities. Each facility has adapted the plan to meet their individual facility needs and are executing their plans, to the best of their ability, to medically isolate, quarantine and cohort inmates.”

The state Office of the Public Defender did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the court’s order.

According to the state DPS, as of Tuesday, 2,838 inmates have been infected and recovered from COVID-19 with 39 active cases in nine facilities that house Hawaii prisoners. Nine inmates have died from complications associated with the virus. Corrections staff have recovered from 380 infections, with 12 active cases.

DPS continues to educate corrections staff and inmates about the vaccines and encourages everyone to get vaccinated, according to Otani. Vaccines are offered daily, anytime an inmate requests it, and to all new intakes.

Sign-up sheets are posted in each housing unit and health care staff members frequently ask inmates if they would get vaccinated, especially if they are scheduled for release. At intake, inmates are required to watch a 10-minute COVID-19 educational video that includes instruction on infection prevention measures, detailed hand washing procedures, and vaccinations, said Otani.

“The State is committed to ensuring the health, safety and security of all the people of Hawaii and agrees with the Court that blanket releases of inmates from correctional facilities do not accomplish these goals,” said Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors, in a statement to the Star-Advertiser. “The State continues to provide vaccinations and healthcare services for inmates, and is working with the recently-established Agreement Monitoring Panel on its COVID-19 response in the correctional facilities.”

BY THE NUMBERS

650: Inmates released

66%: Fully vaccinated inmates

2,838: Recovered from COVID-19

39: Current COVID-19 infections

380: Staff recovered from covid-19

12: Current staff COVID-19 cases

COVID-19 IN HAWAII’S JAILS AND PRISONS

>> 650: Inmates released between April and June 2020 to help ease crowding amid the pandemic

>> 39: Active COVID-19 infections among inmates in nine Hawaii facilities

>> 380: Staff recovered from COVID-19

>> 12: Staff with active infections

Correction: Justice Todd Eddins was the fourth author of the Hawaii Supreme Court ruling, not Justice Michael Wilson as reported in an earlier version.
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