Hawaii prison and jail inmates are dying at a higher rate thus far this year than at any time in the past decade, a pattern being fueled in part by six deaths related to COVID-19 at the state’s largest prison.

At least one mainland study has shown that prison deaths have been increasing during the pandemic, and Hawaii appears to be following that pattern.

Statistics provided by the state Department of Public Safety show 16 prisoners died in all of 2020, while 14 have already died so far this year. That includes a 38-year-old prisoner who died Thursday after he was found unconscious at Halawa Correctional Facility, the state’s largest prison.

Those numbers compare with 20 inmate deaths each in 2012 and 2013, which was the peak number of deaths for the past decade. The fewest prison and jail deaths in the last 10 years was in 2018, when six inmates died.

“There’s no doubt that deaths are going up across the board in every state prison system since the pandemic began, for obvious reasons,” said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative. The policy initiative is a Massachusetts think tank focused on the impact of mass incarceration.

Halawa Correctional Facility tour with chess game, as we entered, all inmates were corralled back to their cells and a chess game was left unfinished.
An unfinished chess game in the common area of a cellblock at Halawa Correctional Facility. Inmate deaths in Hawaii prisons and jails are occurring this year at an unusually rapid clip. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

A recent study of inmate deaths in Florida showed that prisoner deaths there increased even beyond the number of fatalities that could be attributed to COVID-19.

That study showed “it was COVID-19 deaths in large part, but it wasn’t all COVID-19 deaths, because as you would expect, when a pandemic hits a prison it also straps the resources that the prison already has for dealing with other stuff, and so people die more of other causes as well,” Bertram said.

She said she is “pretty confident” it’s because correctional medical systems were overwhelmed. “I think a big issue is the health care systems in prisons are already not equipped to deal with chronic and long-term health care issues, and it’s probably even worse when you have to devote a lot of that resource to the pandemic.”

Other possibilities are that inmates’ immune systems may be weakened by COVID-19 infections, and they then succumb to other diseases. Or, some of the deaths may actually be COVID-19 deaths that have not been properly reported, Bertram said.

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said in a written statement that “we cannot speculate on why some years have higher or lower deaths than other years.”

“In addition to the aging (inmate) population, typically, the prison population is made up of people with life-long drug addictions, who have lived hard lives on the streets, and whose diets have not been healthy for sustained periods of time,” Schwartz said in a written response to questions.

“As a result, their physiological age is 10-15 years older than their chronological age due to the stresses associated with conditions they were exposed to prior to incarceration. Inmates who are 50 years old typically have the health of a 65-year-old,” according to Schwartz.

Hawaii correctional officials have announced three of the 16 inmate deaths in 2020 were related to COVID-19, including two deaths at a privately run Arizona prison where Hawaii inmates are housed. The third fatality related to COVID-19 last year was at Halawa Correctional Facility.

There were six more COVID-19-related inmate deaths at Halawa Correctional Facility in January and February of this year, bringing the state total attributed to the pandemic to nine.

Hawaii’s response to COVID-19 in state prisons and jails has been so poorly executed that a federal judge issued a decision last week declaring that corrections officials demonstrated “objective deliberate indifference” to the threat to the inmates.

The lawsuit alleges an array of lapses on the part of corrections officials, including housing inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19 with inmates who did not have the virus; packing inmates together shoulder-to-shoulder in dining halls even as infections were spreading; and housing 40 to 60 inmates at a time in a single room known as the “Fishbowl” at the Hilo jail.

The lawsuit also alleged staff do not always wear masks in Hawaii’s crowded correctional facilities, and both inmates and staff claim that inmates do not receive cleaning supplies. Hand sanitizer and wipes are unavailable in housing units, and cells housing COVID-19-positive inmates are not cleaned before new occupants move in, according to the lawsuit.

U.S. District Court Judge Jill Otake ruled that corrections officials failed to follow their own Pandemic Response Plan, and warned that additional outbreaks are “inevitable” unless the state responds more effectively to the coronavirus. She issued a preliminary injunction ordering them to actually follow the official response plan.

Learning who dies in a Hawaii jail or prison and what caused the deaths is complicated by extremely tight restrictions the state places on the information the Department of Public Safety releases to the public.

While correctional systems in other states such as Nevada routinely announce inmate deaths as they occur and provide at least some information about the prisoners, Hawaii does not.

California, Arizona and Oregon also each announce deaths as they occur, and disclose varying amounts of information surrounding the circumstances of each death.

Hawaii Department of Public Safety officials have announced deaths that were related to COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, but do not routinely publicly announce deaths of inmates in custody as they occur.

They will release limited information about specific inmate fatalities if media or others hear about an incident and inquire, but that information does not include names.

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center security camera screen.
Images from security cameras at the Oahu Community Correctional Center. The Department of Public Safety does not generally announce inmate deaths as they occur. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Concerns that inmate deaths might be going unreported prompted state lawmakers to pass Act 234 in 2019 to require that the prison system notify the governor within 48 hours of any deaths of inmates or staff at any prison or jail where Hawaii inmates are held. The governor is required to forward those reports to lawmakers.

But corrections officials will only release heavily redacted versions of those reports to the public, blacking out the names of the inmates as well as the exact times and dates of deaths.

The Act 234 reports did reveal one prison homicide last year that had not been publicly reported, but the reports generally provide very little information about the circumstances surrounding each death.

Those redactions in turn make it difficult or sometimes impossible to access autopsy reports on the deaths, despite the fact that under Hawaii law autopsies are public records. Autopsies can provide valuable insight into a fatality, including information as basic as whether a death was a homicide, or whether an inmate had COVID-19 at the time of death.

The state Attorney General contends the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibits the state from releasing more information.

Problems have been found with the way some states count inmate deaths, and there is reason to believe that Hawaii reporting may also be incomplete.

The New York Times this month cited cases where inmates who died of COVID-19 were not counted in the official death statistics because they were hospitalized or released from custody before their deaths. The prisons and jails where they had been held then excluded them from the facilities’ death tolls.

Hawaii used a similar tactic when it came to making an Act 234 report in the case of 23-year-old James Borling-Salas.

Borling-Salas had been jailed for violating probation after being convicted of unauthorized entry into a motor vehicle, and was injured in an altercation with other inmates at Oahu Community Correctional Center on Dec. 14, 2019.

He died on Jan. 16, 2020, but prison officials never filed an Act 234 report to notify the governor of Borling-Salas’s death, which would normally be required under the 2019 law.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety said at the time Borling-Salas was excluded from the Act 234 reporting requirements because he was discharged from probation on Jan. 9, a week before he died.

Court records show the judge in Borling-Salas’ case discharged him from probation and ordered him “released” on Jan. 9 after his lawyer filed a motion explaining Borling-Salas had suffered such serious injuries in the OCCC assault that he was in a “vegetative state” at The Queen’s Medical Center.

Act 234 only requires that a death be reported to the governor if the person who dies is “incarcerated in a state or contracted facility,” the spokeswoman said in a written statement. At the time he died, he was no longer in the custody of the Department of Public Safety.

Deputy Attorney General James Walther said in a written statement last week that Borling-Salas’ case is still under investigation, and no one has been charged with his death.

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