Prison population plummets

The state Department of Public Safety and Hawaii Judiciary have been reducing the population in the state’s jails and prisons because of a Supreme Court order for them to do so in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to a request by the Tribune-Herald for a list inmates who have been released from custody at Hawaii Community Correctional Center pursuant to that order, both agencies replied that they don’t have a list.

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“In this matter, the Department of Public Safety’s … role in the criminal justice system is to release those so directed by the courts, when and as the court directs us to,” DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said. “… Ultimately, the court makes the related decisions in consideration of all factors it deems fit.”

She added the department’s staff “are not expected to interpret … why a decision was made.”

The Office of the Public Defender, whose lawsuit led to the Supreme Court order which decreed that all jails and prisons within the state shall reduce inmate populations to the facilities’ design capacity, also responded that it doesn’t keep a list of inmates released because of coronavirus concerns.

“The office has not kept any official statistics on how many motions were filed and how many (inmates) were released. Nor did we have an official list of inmates who were granted or denied release,” Public Defender James Tabe said. “An attempt is being made to collect the information; however, many if not all of the attorneys are working from home, so compiling a list has been difficult.”

The rationale for the order to depopulate correctional facilities is to promote social distancing and prevent an outbreak of the potentially deadly coronavirus within the inmate population in the state’s chronically overcrowded jails and prisons.

“Judges have the final determination as to who is released and who is not released,” Tabe said. “The Supreme Court ordered that judges should not release any inmate who poses a significant risk to the safety of the inmate or the safety of the public.”

Tabe added that without prisoner releases, appropriate physical distancing is not possible in the state’s correctional facilities.

“COVID-19 outbreaks … will not only place inmates at risk of death or serious illness, but will also endanger the lives and well-being of staff and service providers who work in the facilities, their families, and members of the community at large,” he said. “Also, outbreaks within these facilities will severely tax the limited resources of community health care providers, including hospital beds, ventilators, and personal protective equipment because of virulent spread within close quarters, and will also require the utilization of additional resources to provide constitutionally mandated medical care.

“To achieve any proper social distancing at HCCC, the population must be reduced to HCCC’s design capacity.”

As of Thursday, the statewide jail and prison population was down 832 inmates from March 2.

HCCC was down 165 inmates from the 395 who were incarcerated on March 2, but its inmate population of 234 is still 28 more than its design capacity of 206.

Schwartz said, as of Thursday, no inmate in a Hawaii jail or prison had tested positive for COVID-19.

None of the reports filed by Daniel Foley, a retired Intermediate Court of Appeals judge appointed as a special master by the Supreme Court to oversee the orderly release of inmates, include the names of any inmates who have been granted early release under the high court’s order, whether by a judge or by the Hawaii Paroling Authority.

“The Supreme Court ordered that any consideration for release is to be done by a case-by-case basis, and that the judges will decide whether an inmate is to be released,” Tabe said. “Therefore, the deputy public defenders and private criminal defense attorneys needed to file individual motions on behalf of each of their clients.”

Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said his office is aware of the motions filed and inmates released because of those motions, although there isn’t an official list.

He noted the Tribune-Herald can check on individual cases — a cumbersome and time-consuming process, and far more time-consuming than a computer-generated, publicly available list of inmate releases would be.

The prosecutor, who’s among a crowded field of candidates running for mayor this year, also acknowledged the public has the right to know if a potentially violent or dangerous inmate is released back into the community.

“Oftentimes, we’re believing that these people are dangerous when they’re being released. But I can’t make a statement to you saying, ‘this guy is a danger’ or ‘this girl is a danger’ because that violates the ethical rules of professional conduct,” he said. “There’s a lot of information I’d love to give you on a regular basis, but because of the ethical rules of professional conduct, I can’t do that.”

Without naming specific individuals, Roth characterized some of the inmate releases as “very troubling to me.”

He said he’s suggested measures, such as transferring inmates to Kulani Correctional Facility — a minimum-security prison on the slopes of Mauna Loa about 20 miles southwest of Hilo. As of May 4, Kulani had 165 inmates, 35 fewer than its design capacity of 200 inmates.

In addition, Roth said, HCCC’s Hale Nani campus, on the southern outskirts of Hilo, could be fenced in, and tents he called “Arpaio-style” — a nod to controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio — could be erected on its grounds.

“When I read through the report by the special master, they characterize HCCC as a small facility. It’s not a small facility. It’s a couple of facilities,” he noted.

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“I’ve made my voice known on that, but they’re operating under an order by the Supreme Court to bring numbers down.”

Email John Burnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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