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Stafford Kaeo had just the clothes he was wearing and his diabetes medication when he stepped outside the gates of Waiawa Correctional Facility three-and-a-half weeks ago.
“I had no state I.D., no birth certificate, no Social Security card,” he said. “I really had nothing.”
The former prisoner, who was released early on parole from the West Oahu minimum security prison because of COVID-19 worries, said he was told of his release only four days prior.
The state Department of Public Safety, mandated by law to provide outgoing prisoners with reentry services, including identification, handed him nothing as he walked out, Kaeo said.
He later got help with a cellphone and some clothes, but those things came from a pastor and his nonprofit — Kahu Kaleo Patterson and the Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center.
Hawaii’s correctional facilities have released hundreds of people as part of a statewide effort to reduce the inmate population in response to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2, the population has been reduced by about 800.
Lawmakers, public officials, victims’ advocates and others have voiced concerns about where some of these inmates end up after they are released if they don’t have families or housing.
Meanwhile, advocates are saying the public safety department is shirking its responsibility to provide them with adequate reentry services. Community organizations are stepping up to help find housing, case management and other services necessary to transition back into the community.
“Department of Public Safety has basically taken the position that it doesn’t have any obligations to ensure that people exiting the prisons because of COVID are taken care of,” said Wookie Kim, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.
The ACLU of Hawaii wrote a letter with Lawyers for Equal Justice to Special Master Dan Foley, a retired judge appointed by the Hawaii Supreme Court to oversee the inmate population reductions, saying the department is disregarding its statutory mandate to provide reentry services to exiting inmates.
For instance, the department is obligated to provide civil identification cards and to help obtain documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards.
“If Department of Public Safety cares about public safety, it would care about ensuring an effective transition,” Kim said. “We think that the failure to take responsibility of reentry is essentially setting people up for failure.”
Toni Schwartz, a public safety spokeswoman, said in an emailed response that the department “makes every effort to help inmates successfully transition out of our custody with the resources they need.”
“Staff and case workers make themselves available to all inmates who require help with the various forms and applications,” she said.
The department has a reentry coordination office, which has continued to update the resource guide available online, she added.
Kaeo, recently released from Waiawa, said Patterson, the pastor of the Pacific Justice and Reconciliation Center gave him a bus pass and cellphone to keep in contact with his parole officer.
“The pastor is very nice,” he said. “The thing I can do for him is give him my volunteer service. That’s the only thing I can do.”
Patterson’s organization is part of a larger effort called the Emergency Reentry Project, an alliance of community organizations working to provide housing and support to people released from correctional facilities during the pandemic.
Other members include the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center, Community Alliance on Prisons, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Office of the Public Defender, Hawaii Innocence Project and the Hawaii Justice Coalition.
Finding housing has been a priority, says Carrie Ann Shirota, an attorney who has been volunteering with the reentry project.
Nearly everyone involved in the process of reducing inmate populations, including the attorney general and the prosecutors, wants to make sure the inmates have somewhere to go, she said.
“If the state partners with community organizations and nonprofits, it’s a win-win situation for our entire community, because they will have a verifiable residence and they will have case management,” she said.
On Maui, the reentry project’s stakeholders group arranged for 20 to 30 people released from the Maui Community Correctional Center to stay at a hotel and receive case management for two months, she said.
Maui Economic Opportunity, a nonprofit human services agency, would provide 24/7 monitoring, meals and other amenities at the site, she said. The program applied for a grant with the Hawaii Community Foundation but hasn’t lined up funding yet.
“We’re all in agreement that housing is a necessity for everyone’s concerns to be addressed,” Shirota said. “We need to find the resources.”
The model on Maui could be recreated on Oahu and the Big Island, she said. The reentry project is talking to hotels and agencies willing to house released inmates.
The Emergency Reentry Project has also received an anonymous donation of $35,000 to provide cellphones to released inmates to keep in touch with attorneys and parole or probation officers, according to a letter the group filed with the court.
But the best people to help integrate inmates into the community are those who are working directly in the system, including the public safety department, said Kim.
“Taking care of people who are transitioning back into the community is the responsibility of the broader community,” he said. “It’s all of our responsibilities.”
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