A lot of residents, politicians and top law enforcement officials are raising concerns that releasing nonviolent inmates to prevent the spread of the coronavirus will trigger a crime spree.

“None of the inmates should be released,” wrote one commentator to a Civil Beat Community Voice on Friday. “COVID-19 is dangerous enough. Keep prisoners locked up. Safety of the public comes first.”

Some prominent public figures, such as Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, have said inmates are safer behind bars in terms of getting the virus.

But opposition to these releases goes against common sense — metal detectors and barbed wire won’t stop the virus — and is inhumane and bad public policy. That is why leaders in other states and municipalities have moved expeditiously to mitigate COVID-19 in their correctional systems.

Hawaii should too.

While there were no cases reported as of Friday, Hawaii’s jails and prisons are described by experts as ideal breeding grounds for COVID-19.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Later this week the court’s special master on the matter, retired judge Daniel Foley, is expected to make his recommendations on how the state might go about a release program.

What is proposed is the release of inmates primarily in Hawaii’s jails who are serving time for petty misdemeanors, misdemeanor offenses or as a condition of probation for felony convictions.

A release list could number in the hundreds and may include pretrial detainees charged with minor offenses and inmates who are seriously ill and unlikely to pose a threat to anyone.

But those eligible for possible release would not include inmates doing time for serious offenses like sexual assault, domestic violence, violating restraining orders and committing more serious burglaries and robberies.

Sentiments against such actions are to be expected in the wake of a pandemic that has people afraid to be within breathing distance of one another.

But the more than 5,000 inmates in our jails and prisons are in fact members of the public. There are about 3,700 incarcerated in state facilities and about 1,200 in a private prison in Arizona.

The inmates are human beings and the state’s responsibility, something that the Hawaii Supreme Court wisely recognizes.

Leading the charge for action is the state public defender, the Kauai County prosecutor and the recently established Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission.

The commission wrote a letter last month to the Hawaii chief justice, House and Senate leaders and the Department of Public Safety warning that, if “something is not done immediately, the correctional system may soon be faced with a very serious crisis which will directly impact our community at large.”

That same letter pointed out that employees in the correctional system are considered essential workers and “go home every night to their families.”

The argument that inmates might be safer behind bars goes against the advice of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states, “Incarcerated/detained persons live, work, eat, study, and recreate within congregate environments, heightening the potential for COVID-19 to spread once introduced.”

The Cook County sheriff’s office in Illinois announced Friday that 210 detainees at the county jail have tested positive for COVID-19 as well as 60 employees. The jail, which serves the greater Chicago area, has released at least 400 detainees as judges conduct case-by-case bond reviews.

Meantime, more than 231 inmates and 223 staff members have been infected at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. Some 900 people had been released as of last week.

“Most recently, California announced that it would let out 3,500 nonviolent inmates in the next 60 days — the most drastic measure taken by states so far,” Vox reported Friday.

Think prisons are safe places to ride out the pandemic? They are not.

“Three incarcerated people have already died from Covid-19 in Louisiana, where at least 30 people, including staff, have tested positive in a single federal facility in Oakdale,” said Vox.

Still, some officials in Hawaii act as if there is no threat to our correctional facilities.

The Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state’s four jails and four prisons, said Friday there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Working with the judiciary and police departments, DPS said it has seen “a substantial decrease in the jail population” over the last month.

DPS’s tally on the decrease in inmate numbers in Hawaii ‘s jails this year.


But DPS’s own data show that two of the state’s four jails still exceed capacity and two others are near capacity. As well, because of overcrowding some jail cells hold several inmates, making social distancing impossible.

This comes as Gov. David Ige is asking President Trump to allow the Federal Detention Center near Daniel K. Inouye International Airport to “temporarily house state inmates to ease overcrowding in state corrections facilities in the face of the new coronavirus outbreak.”

As the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Saturday, that idea has been roundly denounced by advocates for criminal justice reform.

“Jails, prisons and detention centers by their very design and nature are the worst places to be in a life-threatening pandemic,” said an attorney and member of the Hawaii Justice Coalition.

COVID-19 will one day — some day — leave our shores. At that time Hawaii will likely still have overcrowded and dilapidated buildings to house inmates, just as we have had for decades now.

That problem can’t be solved immediately. But releasing nonviolent inmates to keep people from getting sick and dying from coronavirus is something we can do and should do without delay.

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