For nearly two years the Department of Public Safety has refused to release the names of inmates who die in Hawaii prisons and jails, and Honolulu Civil Beat is asking a circuit court judge to finally order the state to make those names public.

Civil Beat sued the state last year in an effort to learn the names of prisoners who die in custody, and the latest filing argues the department “must be accountable to the public regarding deaths that occur in its custody if the public is to have confidence that PSD upholds the human and civil rights of the state’s incarcerated population.”

The motion for summary judgment filed on behalf of Civil Beat last week asks Honolulu Circuit Judge John Tonaki to order the department to release the records.

The state Attorney General’s Office has argued the federal law restricting release of medical information prohibits Hawaii officials from releasing the names of deceased inmates. However, many states including California, Arizona and Nevada routinely announce the deaths of prisoners in those jurisdictions.

Remnants of the quarry in Halawa frame what is called 'Main Street' as inmates traverse from modules to modules. file photograph from 2015 December.
The state’s decision to keep secret the names of inmates who die in custody is being challenged in court. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

In fact, Hawaii’s decision to withhold the inmate names flies in the face of the state’s own past practices.

As recently as late 2020, Hawaii correctional officials released the names of prisoners who died in custody in response to media inquiries, and the Department of Public Safety in some cases even issued press releases that identified deceased inmates by name. But the department abruptly reversed itself nearly two years ago, and began withholding the names.

Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, observed that the state cites the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 as a reason for withholding the names of the deceased prisoners “but the federal government and other states have consistently said that HIPAA does not override the requirements of freedom of information laws.”

Gary Yamashiroya, special assistant to the Attorney General, said in a written statement that “we will be filing our response to the motion for summary judgment and don’t have a comment at this time.”

Blocking the release of information about prisoner fatalities generally prevents members of the public from learning how and why individual inmates died.

State law requires autopsies for prisoners who die in custody — and the autopsies are public record by law — but it is nearly impossible as a practical matter to obtain an autopsy of a prisoner without knowing the name of the person who died.

And knowing how prisoners die can reveal much about problems within the state correctional system.

Autopsies of prisoners Kanikahekili Cuizon and Noa Mamala who died at Halawa Correctional Facility last year revealed both had died of overdoses of a drug called “spice,” while the suicides of five prisoners at the Maui jail over the past five years points to an urgent need for improved mental health care at that facility.

Tonaki has scheduled a hearing on the motion for summary judgment for Oct. 25.

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