When Henrietta Napolis’s grandson died at the Kauai Community Correctional Center in late 2016, state Department of Public Safety officials gave her very little information about the circumstances of his death.
It took months for Napolis to learn — and only as a result of a lengthy investigation into inmate deaths by Honolulu Civil Beat in 2017 — that 47-year-old Gregory Silva had died of a toxic reaction to methamphetamine that he had somehow obtained while in custody.
Now, what happened to Silva and his family has prompted legislation to require state corrections officials to make more disclosures about inmates who die, including providing reports to the governor and Legislature within 48 hours of the death.
In the past week two measures, House Bill 336 and Senate Bill 1077, have been approved by their respective public safety committees and moved to the full chambers.
The bills would require DPS to provide the name, gender and age of the inmate or employee, the location of the death or injury leading to the death, the date and time of the death, the cause and a medical report called a clinical mortality review that would include correctional steps to be taken to prevent further deaths. The information would need to be reported to the governor, who would be required to report it to the Legislature.
There’s a growing urgency to the questions being raised. More inmates in Hawaii appear to be dying than in the past. Since April 2015, less than four years, at least 15 inmates have died unnatural deaths, according to news reports and records reviewed by Civil Beat.
That death rate appears considerably higher than historical averages. According to the U.S. Justice Department, a total of 30 Hawaii inmates died from unnatural causes from 2001 to 2014, a 14-year period.
The impetus for the legislation came from Felicia Cowden, a resident of Kauai’s North Shore who was elected to the Kauai County Council in November. She was disturbed by the Silva case and raised the issue with Rep. Nadine Nakamura of Kauai, who shared the idea with another colleague from Kauai, Senate President Ron Kouchi.
“Greg Silva’s death was an experience for us in how hard it is for family members to get information about family member’s deaths when they are incarcerated,” Cowden said. “The legislators don’t even know who dies and when they die. Nobody is watch-dogging it.”
Nakamura took up the cause and introduced the House bill while Kouchi introduced the companion Senate measure.
“This is an attempt to be more transparent about a prisoner’s death and what can be done to improve the situation,” Nakamura said. “It shouldn’t take an investigation to get that information.”
According to DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz, DPS’s current policy is to notify the inmate’s next of kin when a death occurs. She said that when inmates commit suicide, the chairs of the House and Senate public safety committees are notified.
In written testimony on the inmate death reporting bill, DPS officials said they were committed to transparency.
The state attorney general asked the Legislature to allow the interval of time for notification to be extended so that DPS has enough time to reach and notify the next of kin first.
Prison reform activists say that DPS has maintained a policy of intense secrecy regarding inmate deaths.
At a hearing before the House Public Safety, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, said the legislation was badly needed. She noted the recent deaths of four inmates — Ashley Gray, Daisy Kasitati, Joseph O’Malley and Jessica Fortson, all reportedly by suicide.
“The community needs transparency and accountability, not just the bill for us to pay for this dysfunctional department’s misdeeds,” Brady wrote.
She asked that the Public Safety Department also be required to check the bodies of women who die in custody for signs they had been raped.
In her oral testimony, Brady said she had recently heard of two other deaths at the for-profit Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, where about 1,450 inmates from Hawaii are housed.
Legislators on the House Public Safety Committee asked her no questions about the deaths.
But they approved the measure unanimously, and amended it in the way Brady had suggested, adding that deaths of women should include an investigation into whether they had been victims of sexual assault.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which testified in support of the bill, said that “inmate deaths have become too common … and that information about these deaths is sparsely disclosed.”
“In recent years, a rash of violent deaths and apparent suicides among young, mostly Native Hawaiian inmates held in local and out-of-state facilities, has prompted public outrage, especially in the Hawaiian community,” OHA officials wrote. “The public is increasingly distrustful of our criminal justice system and concerned about the safety of our family and community members held in the ‘care and custody’ of DPS.”
Cowden said that the state’s failure to provide specific information about inmate deaths makes it harder for other public officials to understand what’s going on and to take corrective measures to improve conditions in the state’s jails and prisons.
“Nobody in the government seemed to know, or didn’t know enough to care,” she said. “It’s difficult to go to elected officials and tell them the story, and then need to prove to them the specifics of what might seem incredible.”
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at email@example.com.