Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that even as Covid-19 surged among inmates and staff in Hawaii’s crowded prisons and jails in 2020, the state correctional system actually reduced the number of inmates who were released from Hawaii prisons during that first year of the pandemic.

That new federal data is particularly striking because the Hawaii Supreme Court issued orders in April and August of 2020 to expedite releases of lower-risk inmates in an urgent effort to reduce overcrowding and control the spread of the virus inside.

Those court orders primarily applied to jail inmates, meaning prisoners who were awaiting trial or were low-level detainees serving short term sentences. Prison inmates who were convicted and serving terms of more than a year did not qualify for expedited release under those court orders.

However, the Supreme Court also ordered the Hawaii Paroling Authority in the spring of 2020 to “expeditiously address requests for early parole consideration” from prison inmates.

That was supposed to help reduce the census in the state’s prisons as well as the jails, but the federal statistics show the pace of releases from Hawaii prisons actually slowed during the first year of the pandemic.

The number of inmates released from state prisons sank from 1,623 in 2019 to only 1,126 in 2020, a decline of nearly 31%, according to the federal data.

Halawa Correctional Facility inmates walk between modules at the prison. Despite the threat posed by Covid-19 inside state facilities, the number of prison inmates released in 2020 dropped by more than 30%, according to federal statistics. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Despite all of those efforts by the court, Hawaii correctional facilities in the end were overwhelmed by the coronavirus. State officials have reported nine prison inmate deaths related to Covid-19 so far, and more than 4,600 prisoners have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic.

Some other states also reduced the number of prison inmates they released in 2020, but the DOJ data shows Hawaii slowed releases by a larger percentage than any other. That data is reported to the federal government by federal and state correctional systems, including the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

Texas also reduced its prison inmate releases by 15%, while West Virginia reduced prisoner releases by about 17%, and New York state cut the number of releases by more than 21%.

By contrast, California increased its prison releases by nearly 5% in 2020, and New Jersey increased releases by nearly 20%.

Some experts have sharply criticized states such as Hawaii that reduced prison releases during the pandemic.

The Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative argued that “mass incarceration and the failure to reduce prison and jail populations quickly led directly to an increase in COVID-19 cases, not just inside correctional facilities, but in the communities and counties that surround them.

“The boundaries between life ‘inside’ and surrounding communities are actually quite porous, with staff, vendors, volunteers, and visitors constantly flowing in and out of correctional facilities — not to mention the frequent turnover and transfers of incarcerated people themselves,” according to that organization.

The state Supreme Court made it clear in its April 15, 2020 order that it expected the Hawaii Paroling Authority to move quickly on prison releases. The authority suspended parole hearings in the early weeks of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, but the Supreme Court instructed HPA to use video conferencing to resume hearings.

The court ruling states that HPA “shall move forward to expeditiously address requests for early parole consideration,” and instructs the HPA to consider granting early parole to the inmates most susceptible to Covid-19 infection.

According to the April 15 order, the HPA should “consider release of inmates who are most vulnerable to the virus, which includes inmates who are 65 years old and older, have underlying conditions, who are pregnant, and those inmates being held on technical parole violations (i.e. curfew violations, failure to report as directed, etc.) or who have been granted community or minimum security classifications and are near the end of their sentences.”

The Department of Public Safety said in a written response to questions that “there was no policy to delay parole” of prison inmates in 2020, but a number of problems related to the pandemic did slow the releases.

A walkway at the Women’s Community Correctional Center. The Hawaii Paroling Authority said it adapted to the pandemic, but hearing delays and restrictions on admissions to community-based programs “can contribute to delays in release.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The HPA said in a separate written statement that it adapted to the pandemic by taking steps such as holding remote online parole hearings.

But there are “a combination of factors that can contribute to delays in release, namely, community programs restricting admissions resulting in parole orders being deferred, as well as a number of hearings having to be rescheduled due to positive COVID-19 cases, quarantine and reduced population movement.”

For example, some halfway houses and residential drug treatment programs had coronavirus outbreaks of their own, which resulted in fewer slots available for inmates and the delay of some paroles, according to the HPA statement.

“HPA complied with orders issued by the Hawaii Supreme Court,” the authority said in its written statement, adding that it reviewed some cases “earlier than normal.”

“HPA reviewed community custody and minimum custody sentenced populations across the state, including those with less than one year left to serve, non-violent history/instant offense, and those who completed all recommended programs (and/or available comparable programs in the community),” the statement said. HPA also “included those with pre-existing conditions as well as elderly inmates for early parole release consideration.”

The Hawaii Department of Public Safety also stressed in a written response to questions that DOJ data only shows a reduction in prison releases, meaning inmates who were serving sentences of more than one year.

Looking at the larger picture, the total Hawaii inmate population including both prisons and jails declined from 4,976 at the end of 2019 to 4,113 at the end of 2020. That reduction was driven largely by the court orders that prompted the release of 600 or more men and women from state jails.

Hawaii Paroling Authority Chairman Fred Hyun sought to distance his office from that court-ordered effort to reduce the jail population as the Honolulu prosecutor’s office and some members of the public raised concerns about the jail releases.

In a Honolulu Star-Advertiser column on June 25, 2020, he explained that “parole may be granted after a hearing by the board, taking into consideration victim statements, recommendations from attorneys for the defense and prosecution, DPS and HPA staff.

“If granted parole, actual release may take seven business days to six months, depending on acceptance/confirmation of residence, program, acceptance by another state, other state department with shared jurisdiction, immigration or federal sentence,” Hyun wrote. “Parole is an earned privilege based on completion of minimum sentence, institutional behavior, program completion and accomplishments. Granting parole is not automatic.”

Certainly the Hawaii system faced challenges as it attempted to get the prison population down during the pandemic, but there are “about a million strategies they could have employed” to deal with those problems, said Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It seems to me that during the pandemic, they needed to be making every effort possible to get these people out,” Deitch said. “They should have been more expansive in their thinking about eligibility, so they could have increased compassionate release. They could have increased release of people who were medically vulnerable, they could have sped up eligibility for parole.

“If you truly want to reduce your population, you can think about ways to speed up releases, and to make more people eligible for release,” she said.

Carrie Ann Shirota, a lawyer and policy director at the ACLU of Hawaii, also noted that Public Safety data on the state inmate population at the end of 2020 showed hundreds of inmates were being held in Hawaii prisons and jails for parole violations.

Those cases sometimes involve inmates who are sent back to prison for new crimes, but more often involve “technical violations” of parole rules, such as failing a drug test, she said.

That means the HPA continued to aggressively return parolees to prison during the pandemic for technical violations, she said. “They’ll put people back into jail or prison, where there is a higher risk of infection, long-term consequences from this illness, (including) for people who are already medically vulnerable,” she said.

The ACLU is lobbying this year for House Bill 2342, which as originally written would limit HPA’s ability to send inmates back to prison for technical violations. An amended version of that bill is now pending before the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

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