Nearly a dozen inmates at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center have filed motions for early release a amid an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak at the Hilo jail.
As of Friday, nearly 200 inmates at HCCC had tested positive for COVID-19 since May 24, and there were seven active cases among staff.
Eleven inmates not currently infected with the coronavirus filed motions in Hilo Circuit Court to be released for public health reasons.
“It’s not just humanitarian reasons, but I believe it’s a due process issue,” said Deputy Public Defender Patrick Munoz, who represented about half of the early release cases Monday.
Munoz said the increasingly intolerable conditions at the jail — the current number of inmates exceeds the operational capacity of the jail by more than 100 — represent undue hardship for inmates.
“Not only are individuals being exposed to the effects of this potentially life-threatening and long-lasting virus, but there’s also the effects on people being in an overcrowded prison afraid for their lives,” he said. “It’s like they’re on a sinking ship. Fear is overcoming them, people are beginning to panic.”
Munoz and fellow Deputy Public Defender Justin Lee offered blanket arguments explaining why they believe all 11 cases should be released, but also provided additional mitigating factors for each case.
Although Hilo Circuit Judge Peter Kubota did grant five motions for early release, he denied or postponed the rest. Most of the cases he denied were for recalcitrant offenders who had repeatedly violated probation in the past.
The cases included:
• Samuel Flores, found guilty of promoting a dangerous drug in the third degree in 2018, sentenced to 1 year of jail time and four years of probation. According to court documents, Flores violated probation and was re-arrested on May 22, and has been held in HCCC ever since. Motion postponed.
• Shawn Bergen, charged with theft and unauthorized control of a vehicle after an incident in Sept. 2020. Motion postponed.
• Noah Pilgreen, charged with resisting arrest and resisting a traffic stop, along with several other traffic offenses, after an incident on April 2. Pilgreen is not a Hawaii resident and incurred his charges while visiting on vacation from California.
Kubota asked whether it might not be better for Pilgreen to stay in jail, given that he would not be allowed to return home if granted release, but Lee said it would be “better to take his chances outside.” Motion granted.
• Austin Matias, charged in January with abuse of a minor family member, and awaiting a trial scheduled for June 21. Lee noted that, as he has not been convicted, he is de facto innocent until proven guilty. Motion granted.
• Palani Igawa, found guilty in Oct. 2020 of promoting a dangerous drug in the third degree, sentenced to one year jail and four years probation. Motion granted.
• Kole Race-Joaquin, pled guilty in 2020 to promoting a dangerous drug in the second degree, awaiting sentence. Deputy Prosecutor Joseph Lee vehemently opposed Race-Joaquin’s release, saying he is “failing miserably on his probation.” Motion denied.
• Thomas Charles, pled guilty in March 2020 to promoting a dangerous drug in the second degree. Sentenced to 18 months jail, four years probation. Justin Lee said Charles has been incarcerated for most of his adult life, and is old enough to have a high risk of infection. Motion postponed.
• George Labrador, charged in March with a host of drug offenses including promoting a dangerous drug in the first degree, and is awaiting trial in August. Motion denied.
• Jason Benkosky, charged with assault in the first and second degrees after allegedly stabbing his father with a machete on May 25. Motion denied.
• Melvin Guillermo, charged in 2020 with two counts of assault and three of domestic abuse. Motion denied.
• Dustin Snedeker-Abadilla, charged in March with theft, unauthorized control of a vehicle and and ownership of a firearm as a felon. Motion denied, although defense attorney Stanton Oshiro said Snedeker-Abadilla has a history of asthma and is therefore susceptible to infection.