House and Senate measures would require corrections officials to announce each prisoner death on a website, and include information on what caused each fatality.

State lawmakers are pressing corrections officials to post a public notice each time a prison or jail inmate dies in custody, and want information on the cause of each death to be made available to the public.

State law already requires the Department of Public Safety to report each inmate death to the governor and the Legislature, but a new bill introduced at the Legislature would require that department also post those death reports on its website within seven days of filing the reports with the governor.

Once the cause of death has been determined, the department would be required to then submit a follow-up report disclosing that cause. That information would be open to public inspection unless it must be kept confidential by law or there is an ongoing criminal investigation, according to the bill.

“People deserve respect, they deserve answers with regard to their loved ones,” said Rep. Sonny Ganaden, the author of the House and Senate bills that would require the new disclosures. “Individuals should not die mysteriously in the custody of the state.”

“We’re trying to use data to move towards a better system here, and this is one of those instances,” he said. “We need to track them.”

The Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission is backing bills that would require prison officials to publicly post reports on the death of each prison or jail inmate death, and also require prison officials to release the causes of most of those deaths. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

The Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission last week endorsed Ganaden’s bills, which are House Bill 823 and Senate Bill 456.

Christin Johnson, oversight coordinator for the commission, said Monday the measure is important “to ensure that these names and causes of death continue to be put out there and be public, so that people who deeply care about the system, who are affected by the system, can continue to push for change.”

The state Department of Public Safety has had at least three different policies in recent years on what is disclosed when an inmate dies. Up until 2020, prison officials did not announce prisoner deaths publicly, but would confirm a death and identify the deceased inmate if the media inquired about a specific case.

That changed in late 2020, when corrections officials stopped identifying any deceased prisoners, and announced only the deaths that were found to be related to Covid-19 infections. The department said that change in policy was prompted by new legal advice from the state Attorney General’s Office.

The department’s new policy was dramatically out of step with the policies of other states such as California, Arizona and Nevada, which routinely issue public announcements of inmate deaths.

Then-Public Safety Director Max Otani told lawmakers in 2021 he was willing to release more information if the law allowed it, but none of the bills dealing with the issue passed that year.

Honolulu Civil beat sued the state over the new policy in the fall of 2021, and Honolulu Circuit Court Judge John Tonaki ruled last year the department must release the names of inmates who die in state custody.

The department then posted the names of the prisoners who died during the last three years on its website.

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