Inmate release proposed; Coronavirus concerns prompt state public defender to petition Hawaii Supreme Court

  • NANCY COOK LAUER/West Hawaii Today Hawaii Community Correctional Center.

  • NANCY COOK LAUER/West Hawaii Today Inmate dormitory at Hawaii Community Correctional Center during a Nov. 22, 2019, media tour.

Hawaii Community Correctional Center, frequently the state’s most crowded jail, is also the one that will release the most inmates under a plan being worked out between the state Public Defender’s Office and county prosecutors.

The release of 197 inmates is being proposed for HCCC, the Big Island’s only jail. That compares to 136 at Oahu’s jail, 45 on Maui, 44 on Kauai and five at Oahu’s women’s jail, according to a spokesman at the Public Defender’s Office.

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The inmate release, spurred by a petition to the Hawaii Supreme Court for an “extraordinary writ” by the public defender, comes 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.

“Detention and imprisonment during the pandemic not only deprive individuals of their freedom, but also puts them at serious risk of loss of life or permanent injury,” said Public Defender James Tabe in the petition. “These significant risks, not accounted for in sentencing or determinations of pretrial detention, implicate substantive and procedural due process rights that demand coordinated, immediate and comprehensive action by the government.”

Designed to detain 226 inmates in its two Hilo campuses, HCCC’s population is typically about 400 inmates, but the state Department of Public Safety recently trimmed that number to 345.

Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz stressed COVID-19 hasn’t been identified in the state’s facilities.

“There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the prisons or jails,” Schwartz said in a statement. “In response to the COVID-19 outbreak in our country, the Department of Public Safety has developed a comprehensive response plan consistent with the conditions and environment of our correctional facilities and the communities in which they reside. The well-being of all who live in, work in and visit our facilities (is) of the utmost importance to the department and many measures are in place to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19.”

The agency is awaiting the Supreme Court order, she said. Public Safety doesn’t decide which inmates are placed in or released from jails, but follows through with executing orders of the court, she said.

Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth, who filed an answer with the court opposing mass releases of inmates, acknowledged the release will be unpopular with the community. He said not only the 150 employees at the jail need to be protected, but so do local medical workers who would be ill-prepared to handle an outbreak there.

“We objected because we don’t believe we should let people out en masse, but we also realized this is a dangerous situation,” Roth said Wednesday. “This is one of those difficult decisions we need to make but when you figure it out, this is about human life, and when you consider all the factors, human life takes precedence.”

Roth said the county prosecutors are working with the public defender to set guidelines ensuring only inmates who represent the least risk to society are released. Those include nonviolent petty misdemeanants, people on intermittent jail sentences who serve time, for example, only on weekends and those who are serving jail time as a condition of probation.

“We’re trying to assess which people are the least dangerous,” Roth said.

That’s the approach with which Gov. David Ige agrees.

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“I definitely have a concern about the release of inmates out of our jails and prisons,” Ige said during a Wednesday press conference, adding the inmates should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. “(They) should look at the individuals involved and make a determination of whether it would be safe to release them in the community.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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