There will be no immediate mass release of inmates from county jails under a Hawaii Supreme Court order published Thursday, but intermittent inmates will be released while a special master studies the situation more fully.
“At this time, this court declines to enter a blanket order releasing large numbers of inmates,” the order said. “Rather, to address competing public health and safety concerns and to ensure that social distancing measures are being or can be effectuated within the State’s jails and prisons for the safety of the inmates, the staff, and the public, a collaborative effort should first be undertaken.”
The order follows petitions from the state Public Defender’s Office, which sought the release of 426 inmates, including 197 at Hawaii Community Correctional Center, the Big Island’s only jail.
County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said he appreciated the thoughtful approach taken by the court.
“I think it’s good that the Supreme Court decided not to let people go en masse,” Roth said. “They’re letting us try to work through these problems rather than just letting everybody out, which would be a disaster.”
Roth said there are “quite a few” intermittent inmates in HCCC, but he didn’t know the number. The inmates could be incarcerated for any number of crimes, but they were ones the judge didn’t feel were that much risk to society, Roth said.
The public defender sought an “extraordinary writ,” as concerns increase about coronavirus finding its way into the state’s five jails. If it did, it could spread rapidly in the crowded, confined spaces, endangering corrections personnel and inmates and overwhelming hospitals.
The court, in the order signed by all five justices, said inmates serving intermittent sentences, for example, those serving weekends only, pose a threat of infection to others in the jail and should be released.
The release of other inmates, however, will come after the special master, retired Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Daniel R. Foley, works with the parties in the lawsuit to come up with plans to reduce jail populations while keeping the public safe, including looking at options such as bracelet monitoring and alternative locations to house inmates. His first report is due April 9.
“With the appointment of a Special Master and pursuant to the provisions set forth in this order, this court establishes a process for the expedited but appropriate consideration of the request to reduce inmate populations within correctional centers and facilities, while preserving Respondents’ ability to object to the release of specific inmates or to suggest alternative measures,” the order stated.
The Public Defender’s Office did not return a telephone call by press-time Thursday.
Designed to hold 226 inmates in its two Hilo campuses, HCCC’s population is typically around 400 inmates, but the Department of Public Safety has recently trimmed that number to 336.
Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz stressed COVID-19 hasn’t been identified in the state’s facilities. The department so far has tested two inmates statewide, one at HCCC whose test came back negative and another on Oahu, whose results are pending.
“The Department has been following the petition from the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) to the Hawaii Supreme Court requesting release of certain inmates due to concerns of possible spread of COVID-19 to the prisons and jails,” a Public Safety update said Thursday. “We will await further guidance from the Special Master.”