Schatz reintroduces compassionate release legislation

  • SCHATZ

  • A corrections officer watches the front entrance of Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo on June 1. (KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald)

Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz on Thursday reintroduced legislation that would accelerate the federal Bureau of Prisons’ approval process for compassionate release during a public health emergency.

Schatz’s Emergency GRACE Act also would provide $50 million for state prison systems to increase their facilities’ testing for the novel coronavirus, plus the use of compassionate release and elderly or medical parole.

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“People who are eligible for compassionate release are the most vulnerable to public health emergencies like COVID-19, and they are needlessly being put at risk because the process takes too long,” Schatz, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Our bill will help speed up the approval process so that sick and elderly who qualify for compassionate release get it.”

Five of Hawaii’s state-run correctional facilities and Saguaro Correctional Facility, a for-profit prison that houses Hawaii inmates, have had outbreaks during the pandemic. Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo is in the midst of an active outbreak.

As of Wednesday, according to the state Department of Public Safety, 204 HCCC inmates have tested positive, with 78 active cases in medical isolation and 125 recovered. There also were four HCCC staff with active infections and 16 listed as recovered.

As of June 7, the department’s weekly population report counted 344 inmates incarcerated at HCCC, 167% above its design capacity of 206.

Earlier in the pandemic, the Hawaii Supreme Court appointed Daniel R. Foley, a retired Intermediate Court of Appeals judge, as a special master to oversee an orderly release of inmates because of the possibility of an outbreak in the close quarters of correctional facilities. As of May 8, 2020, there were 235 inmates in the Hilo jail, a reduction of 160 inmates in a little more than two months.

The inmate population has risen steadily since the special master position was terminated.

Kulani Correctional Facility, a state-run minimum-security prison on the slopes of Mauna Loa about 20 miles southwest of Hilo, hasn’t had any positive results among 275 inmates tested. One staffer was infected, but is listed as recovered.

Nine Hawaii inmates have died of COVID-19 during the pandemic — seven at Halawa Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison on Oahu, and two at Saguaro.

Hilo Circuit Judge Peter Kubota on Monday heard motions from 11 HCCC inmates not infected with coronavirus seeking early release in the midst of the outbreak. Kubota granted five inmates’ request, but denied three motions and postponed ruling on the other three.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said the department isn’t transporting HCCC inmates to court hearings “until the facility has mitigated virus spread,” but hearings are being held by videoconference.

In federal prisons, more than 49,000 people had been infected with COVID-19, and 256 died as of June 11, according to Schatz. At the same time, nearly 31,000 people sought compassionate release, according to BOP’s response to a letter Schatz wrote requesting data on compassionate release.

BOP approved only 36 requests. By contrast, 3,221 people were granted compassionate release by federal judges through a provision of the First Step Act, which streamlined federal compassionate release.

Jillian Snider, director of Criminal Justice &Civil Liberties Policy at R Street Institute, said that in municipal, state and federal lockups nationwide, “approximately 400,000 prisoners have contracted the virus, and over 2,500 have died as a result.”

“Many inmates suffer from various health ailments, making them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 complications,” Snider said, adding Schatz’s bill, if passed into law, would create “a smart, safe and effective process that removes some of the challenges currently associated with being granted a compassionate release.”

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A companion bill is being introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat.

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

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