Last month I wrote an essay for Civil Beat explaining why Hawaii needs to release jail and prison inmates soon, and on a large scale. The good news is there has been a significant decrease in Hawaii’s inmate population, mainly because the Hawaii Supreme Court ordered a reduction “to design capacity in light of COVID-19.”

Yet our jails and prisons remain overcrowded, and on May 5 Hawaii’s attorney general and three of the state’s four county prosecutors declared that they want the release of inmates stopped. This is a reckless recommendation, for several reasons.

First, incarceration affects many families. Almost one in two Americans (45%) have had an immediate family member incarcerated, and the proportion approaches two-thirds for extended family members.

Most incarceration experiences are in jails, which hold pretrial detainees and persons convicted of misdemeanors, but about one in seven Americans has had an immediate family member imprisoned for a felony offense. Many people believe that inmates are dangerous and despicable “others,” but in most respects inmates are us.

Second, while we lack reliable evidence about how many American inmates have been infected with the coronavirus, the evidence we do have is troubling.

26 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu in 2015. Hawaii’s jails and prisons remain dangerously overcrowded, even after the recent release of hundreds of inmates. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

In the federal prison system, which incarcerates more than 150,000 people, a little under 2% of inmates have been tested, and 70% of those tested have been found to be positive.

At the Cook County (Chicago) jail the infection rate is 7%. In the New York City jails it is 8%. At Parnall Correctional Facility in Michigan, 10% of inmates and 21% of staff have tested positive.

And at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio — the largest hotspot in the country — more than 2000 inmates have tested positive — about 80% of the prison’s inmates.

In many parts of America the coronavirus outbreak behind bars is far more widespread than previously believed.

Little Testing Done

Third, no one in Hawaii’s jails and prisons has yet tested positive, but the state has done little testing of its inmate population.

As of May 4, only 19 inmates had been tested – just 0.4% of the inmates in our state. By contrast, about 2.7% of Hawaii’s free population has been tested, with a positive rate just under 2%.

At the present rate of testing in Hawaii’s jails and prisons, there is no sound basis for believing that our correctional facilities are virus-free. Given the crowded and decrepit conditions of our jails and prisons (recall the jail riot on Maui in March 2019), there is also no good reason to suppose that what has happened in New York and Ohio cannot happen here.

Fourth, Hawaii transfers out of state almost half of its convicted felons. That’s a far higher percentage than any other state in the country.

At present, approximately 1,200 persons from Hawaii are incarcerated at the Saguaro Correctional Facility in Arizona. But we know almost nothing about the conditions of confinement in this private prison, and the Hawaii Supreme Court and Special Master Dan Foley have expressed little concern about the welfare of our people in Saguaro.

This needs to change.

Fifth, even in normal times some people will reoffend. A study of 660 persons released from prison on parole in Hawaii in 2005-06 found that the rearrest rate within three years was 55%.

That was significantly lower than the recidivism rates — 63 percent and 68 percent — found in two national studies. Unless you believe that all inmates should be kept incarcerated forever, lamenting the fact that a dozen or so people out of the 823 inmates who have been released in Hawaii during the coronavirus crisis (that’s 1.5%) were rearrested is a red herring.

The COVID-19 crisis is far from finished.

Finally, prosecutors in Hawaii would like you to believe that they can tell which inmates are dangerous and therefore which ones should not be released. But in fact, their ability to do so is severely limited. Research shows that humans are bad at predicting dangerousness — and at predicting pretty much everything else, for that matter.

Hawaii’s judges and the Hawaii Paroling Authority need to acknowledge this fundamental fact.

The COVID-19 crisis is far from finished, and Hawaii’s jails and prisons remain dangerously overcrowded. The state supreme court and the special master have done a decent job in some respects, but their orders and reports lack urgency.

Time matters. If you get behind this virus, the consequences can be catastrophic. Our leaders and legal professionals will not be able to say that nobody warned them.

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