(BIVN) – Lieutenant Governor of Hawaiʻi and COVID-19 healthcare liasion Josh Green spoke to a state senate committee on Wednesday, and shared his thoughts on the threat the coronavirus poses to the prison population.
“There’s the compassionate worried position about infecting people,” Green said, “and then there’s the concern that I have, which is: if you release prisoners who are already anti-social in some way I really worry that they’re not gonna listen to all the social distancing and home quarantine rules.”
Green told the senators that his recommendations are to either “pick a facility that we can keep some modicum of lockdown on”, or use ankle bracelets.
“I do worry that close quarters could cause a mass infection,” Green said, “which is highly debatable one way or another,” because such an outbreak in the prisons could create a surge that would overwhelm available healthcare resources, he said.
85 Hale Nani Inmates Under Quarantine
The Hawaiʻi Department of Public Safety said Thursday there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the prisons or jails.
However, 85 inmates in the Hale Nani Reintegration Center in Hilo are quarantined as a precaution after one HCCC inmate began exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory illness and was tested. The 85 inmates will remain quarantined until the test result is received.
Federal Detention Center Taking Up 100 Inmates
The Department of Public Safety provided updates Thursday on the ongoing inmate population relief effort, and the transfer request made to Federal Detention Center in Honolulu:
Recently Governor Ige sent a letter to President Trump and HI-EMA Director Kenneth Hara sent a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) asking for possible temporary transfer of select inmates to the Federal Detention Center (FDC) in Honolulu to help alleviate overcrowding during this pandemic. Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda also sent a letter to the FDC Warden requesting an update on the status of their 30-day inmate movement suspension, which expires April 13.
On April 8, the Department of Public Safety received an official response letter from the FDC Warden. The FDC has agreed to resume taking up to 100 PSD inmates, effective Monday, April 13, 2020.
“Further internal discussion and planning with the FDC is needed to coordinate movement. We will figure that out together in the coming days,” said Espinda. “We want to extend our heartfelt thanks to the Ige administration and Director Hara for sending the requests through federal channels, and express our extreme gratitude to the Federal BOP and the FDC Warden for their willingness to assist us with this temporary transfer during this unprecedented time.”
The department also detailed these other inmate population relief efforts:
The Department of Public Safety has been following the petition from the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court requesting release of certain inmates due to concerns of possible spread of COVID-19 to the prisons and jails. We have received the Initial Summary Report issued by retired Judge Daniel R. Foley; the Special Master appointed by the Supreme Court to assist all parties involved in a collaborative effort to find a resolution to the issues raised in the petition. We acknowledge and will follow through with the recommendations specific to PSD that can be implemented immediately such as:
1) increasing the posting of our population reports on our website from once a month to twice monthly;
2) providing additional suggested inmate informational listings to the OPD and county prosecutors for their due consideration; and
3) continued sharing of plans and efforts to implement the PSD Pandemic Response Plan with the Correctional System Oversight Commission.
We will wait for further guidance as the other recommendations are reviewed and an implementation plan is created by all parties involved in this continuous collaborative effort.
Meanwhile, advocates for the protection of the incarcerated population shared an open letter, and this media release:
The American Civil Liberties Union and ‘Ekolu Mea Nui released an open letter to public officials asking them to take immediate action to better protect incarcerated people and staff and address a potential COVID-19 outbreak in Hawai‘i jails and prisons. The letter was signed by 136 members of the public and included quotes by advocates and those with incarcerated loved ones.
The letter asks for the release of certain incarcerated people — such as those being held pretrial and are therefore innocent in the eyes of the law, kūpuna, and those with chronic medical conditions, among others — in order to reduce the population, which would lower the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. The letter also asks that officials ensure there is personal protective equipment (i.e. hand sanitizer, face masks, etc.) for all staff and incarcerated people as well as free phone calls, medical co-pays and accessible mental health support.
ACLU of Hawai‘i Smart Justice Field Organizer Shayna Lonoaea-Alexander said: “We’re all rightfully scared. We understand the alarming politics of releasing people from our prisons and jails. We know. But now is not the time to lead with fear, when our actions can save the people we all care about. No one deserves to die because they are kept in crowded, unhygienic dorms or cells. Releasing our families and friends from incarceration, including those who are elderly, medically vulnerable, and are serving time because of an inability to afford cash bail — is the right thing to do. It’s the medically necessary thing to do. What we need right now is for our government leaders and officials to act with the sense of urgency our families deserve.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that because people are living in such close quarters and many have existing medical conditions, jails and prisons are at a “heightened” risk for infections, such as COVID-19. Hawaii’s jails and prisons are currently overcrowded with sometimes up to four people living in a cell built for one, making social distancing nearly impossible.