Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Tuesday objected to efforts to relieve overcrowding at Hawaii’s correctional facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic, claiming that “our prison could actually be the safest place in terms of COVID-19.”

The mayor was responding to a submission by the state public defender’s office to the Hawaii Supreme Court listing 426 inmates who could be released – including 137 inmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center.

There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Hawaii’s over-capacity correctional settings, but positive tests are “inevitable” and will put inmates and staff at “tremendous risk,” Hawaii State Public Defender James Tabe said. Kauai Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar called the status quo “a ticking time bomb.” 

At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Caldwell rejected the idea. He noted prisons and jails are not allowing visitors because of COVID-19. 

Mayor Kirk Caldwell gives a short presentation on what city essential services will be working during the Coronavirus/COVID19 outbreak on Oahu.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell said releasing prisoners would create more work for Honolulu police officers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“So the inmates are actually more isolated than probably most of us are,” he said. “The prison guards, if they’re practicing good social distancing, if they’re practicing hygiene, if their temperatures are being taken, they’re wearing gloves in certain cases, and don’t come in contact with the prisoners, our prison could actually be the safest place in terms of COVID-19.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagrees. The federal agency’s guidance says detained people are at “heightened” risk for infection in part because they “live, work, eat, study, and recreate within congregate environments.”

The incarcerated population also faces many opportunities for the virus to be introduced aside from personal visits, including intakes, transfers, court appearances, medical appointments and consultations with lawyers.

“All it’s going to take is one officer to bring in a case from home, which can very easily happen, and then it’s going to spread like wildfire through the institution,” said Tom Helper, director of litigation at Lawyers for Equal Justice. “They can’t practice social distancing there, they can’t do the kind of hygiene the rest of us are trying to pursue in our lives.” 

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center razor wire.
Oahu Community Correctional Center is among Hawaii’s overcrowded jails and prisons. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

OCCC has an operational capacity of 954. Its current population is 1,177.

“To say the people who are incarcerated are safest when they’re inside a jail, that simply goes against what public health officials have been saying,” said Monica Espitia, the Smart Justice Campaign director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. “We all want public safety, but I think that’s misguided and that’s just wrong.”

Much grimmer scenarios have already played out in other jurisdictions, including at New York City’s Rikers Island complex, where more than 160 inmates and more than 100 correctional workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Local news reports say more than 800 inmates have been quarantined there.

Another example is the Cook County Jail in Chicago, where 134 detainees reportedly tested positive for the virus. That’s on top of 20 staff members who have also tested positive. Local news reports said Cook County jail has released at least 400 detainees because of the outbreak.

The threat of COVID-19 has spurred many jurisdictions to release inmates from jails and prisons, whether through individual action by a prosecutor, lawyer or judge, or through a concerted effort. One of the biggest is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s plan to release some 3,500 non-violent offenders.

The Hawaii Office of the Public Defender has filed a series of petitions in the state Supreme Court to release some inmates. Three county prosecutors — Dwight Nadamoto of Honolulu, Mitch Roth of the Big Island and Don Guzman of Maui — oppose releasing detainees en masse.

It’s unclear whether any Hawaii inmates would be released any time soon. But the state public safety department said that between Feb. 24 and March 27, it reduced the statewide jail population by 356 inmates.

Caldwell said he wants his police department to be part of the conversation, along with prosecutors.

“Now is not the time to do prison reform in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “Do not take another step and release any prisoners until you talk to our first responders on the island of Oahu.”

The mayor said releasing prisoners would create unnecessary work for county police officers – “the ones who put the bad guys away.” 

He added, “they’re going to come back out, and if they don’t have a place to go to, and they don’t have a job to do, and they have no income, and many of our businesses are closed and shuttered, and many of our residents are in their homes, they’re going to do what they know how to do, and they’re going to be breaking and entering, putting more burden on our police officers.”

Those detained at the Oahu Community Correctional Center include pretrial detainees who have not been convicted of a crime and those found guilty of misdemeanors. Some are there simply because they can’t afford bail, Helper said.

Allowing continued overcrowding during the pandemic could amount to a death sentence, Espitia said.

Are we saying these people deserve to die?” she asked. 

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