State Supreme Court concludes COVID-19 inmate release case

The Hawaii Supreme Court on Friday terminated a case which led to an order requiring the state’s correctional facilities to release certain inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The vote was 4-1, with Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald and Associate Justices Paula A. Nakayama and Sabrina S. McKenna, and Intermediate Court of Appeals Chief Judge Lisa M. Ginoza — who’s serving on the high court because of a vacancy — in the majority.

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The lone dissenter was Associate Justice Michael D. Wilson.

The order was in response to a petition on Aug. 12 by the Office of the Public Defender, which was concerned about a COVID-19 breakout at Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Hundreds of inmates were released from the state’s correctional facilities, including misdemeanor and petty pretrial detainees and those serving misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor sentences. Those exempted from the release order included anyone convicted of or awaiting trial for felony assault, sexual assault or attempted sexual assault; robbery; burglary; unauthorized entry to a dwelling; domestic abuse; or violating a restraining order, protective order or injunction.

Jails also were ordered to release inmates serving a sentence of 18 months or less as a condition of a felony deferral or probation, except those convicted of the felony offenses previously mentioned.

Pretrial detainees and inmates released by the original order will remain free unless the trial courts in individual cases rule otherwise.

“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 order states. “Thus, it appears that the conditions that necessitated swift action by this court in August 2020 are no longer prevalent.”

In his dissenting opinion, Wilson wrote the court’s majority is ignoring the expert opinion of Dr. Pablo Stewart, who concluded “the health and safety measures that have been implemented inside (Department of Public Safety) remain inadequate and ineffective at mitigating the risks and addressing the harms created by COVID-19.”

On April 5, the most recent numbers provided by DPS, Hawaii Community Correctional Center had an inmate population of 298, 144% of its capacity of 206 inmates. The Hilo jail had 355 inmates in its Aug. 17, 2020, head court, 172% of design capacity. The lowest population count since the order was issued was 248 on Oct. 19, 2020, 120% of design capacity.

HCCC hasn’t had a widespread outbreak like the one experienced at OCCC. As of Thursday, according to DPS, one inmate and two staffers had tested positive for COVID-19. The inmate and one staffer have recovered. One staffer’s case was listed as active.

Kulani Correctional Facility, a 200-bed minimum security prison on the slopes of Mauna Loa about 20 miles southwest of Hilo, is consistently below capacity, reporting 147 inmates in its April 5 report.

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There have been no reports of inmate infections at KCF, and only one staffer tested positive for COVID-19 and had recovered, according to DPS.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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