A Hawaii Circuit Court judge on Tuesday ruled the state Department of Public Safety must release the names of prison and jail inmates who die in state custody, an order that moves the department a step closer to the longstanding policies of other states. Other correctional systems around the nation routinely announce inmate fatalities.

Circuit Court Judge John Tonaki made his ruling orally in a lawsuit filed by Honolulu Civil Beat against the department last year after public safety officials rejected a request for all reports on inmate deaths in 2020 and 2021.

The department argued the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 prohibited it from “disclosing individually identifiable health information” that was contained in the reports, including the names of any inmates who died.

However, Tonaki ordered the department to release the names of the prisoners who died as well as the reports on autopsies to determine the cause of death in each case, said Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, who challenged the policy for Civil Beat.

Women's Community Correctional Center.
A corrections officer at the Women’s Community Correctional Center. Hawaii First Circuit Court Judge John Tonaki ruled this week the state must disclose the names of inmates who have died in custody. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The department operates all of the jails and prisons in Hawaii, and in years past would disclose the names of deceased inmates in response to media requests. However, starting in about late 2020 the department abruptly changed that policy, declaring it would no longer publicly identify any inmates who die in custody.

That shift was based on advice from the state Attorney General’s Office, and was important because blocking release of information about prisoner fatalities generally prevents the public from learning how and why individual inmates have died.

“When society has entrusted the care and treatment of individuals to a particular government official, then there should be some accountability if something goes wrong,” Black said Wednesday. “It doesn’t matter whether those government officials are police officers or prison guards or whoever it is, we’ve put those government officials in charge of taking care of these people, and if something goes wrong, the public needs to know about it.”

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

It was disclosures by inmate family members as well as by staff members at correctional facilities this year that revealed details about some of the deaths inside, and have helped make the public aware of some of the problems in the state correctional system.

For example, the 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,” and staff reported the drug was widely used inside.

In another example, the suicides of six prisoners at the Maui jail over the past five years has underscored an urgent need for improving mental health services there.

Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Corrections officers in a module at the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Hawaii’s policy of refusing to release the names of inmates who die inside state prisons and jails is out of step with the policies of many other states, including California, Arizona and Nevada. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The current DPS policy of keeping the names of deceased inmates secret contradicts longstanding practices in other states, including California, Arizona and Nevada. Each of those states routinely announce the deaths of prisoners in correctional facilities in those jurisdictions.

Black said the Civil Beat request in 2021 for autopsy reports was a request for a type of document that has been classified as public records for decades. The department’s response — that HIPAA prevented it from disclosing the autopsies or the names of inmates who died — was much too broad, he said.

“Just the fact that somebody died isn’t confidential information,” Black said. “If it’s public information, just because it’s in the hands of the department shouldn’t mean that it’s confidential.”

The issue of what information can be released in connection with inmates deaths was discussed by the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission on Oct. 20, and Public Safety Director Max Otani said at the time he is willing to make more information public.

“It’s always been my position that if the laws allow me to, we’ll release the information,” he said.

Otani said that if the commission wants to propose a bill to the Legislature that deals with the issue, “we would be willing to work with you on the language that we think is appropriate.”

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in a written statement after Tonaki’s ruling that “the Department of Public Safety will comply with the judge’s order. The director’s position has always been to amend the statutes to allow the release of this information.”

The department will defer to the Attorney General’s Office on whether there will be an appeal of Tonaki’s order, according to the statement.

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