Proposal to Release Nearly 100 HCCC Inmates Blasted by Puna Councilman

April 6, 2020, 7:34 PM HST (Updated April 6, 2020, 7:34 PM)
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Jails will be considerably less crowded if a petition from the State Office of the Public Defender gains traction in the coming days. PC: Pixabay

In late March, the Hawai‘i State Department of Public Safety released 356 of its 2,245 incarcerated individuals, citing the risk posed by overcrowded jails during a period of contagion like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, following two petitions filed by the State Office of the Public Defender on behalf of inmates, county officials on the Big Island are considering the release of upwards of 100 more prisoners from the Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center (HCCC) for the same reason.

One Hawai‘i County Councilperson made an express point Monday to speak out against the initiative, as his office has been swamped with calls from concerned citizens.

“I oppose any release of inmates from HCCC,” said Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, who represents Puna. “Placing close to 100 inmates into our community is outright dangerous. Our police force is taxed and people are scared. This move just adds fuel to the fire, especially in Puna.”

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County law enforcement officials have said no prisoner convicted of domestic violence, sexual assault, burglary or robbery will be released from custody.

Hawai‘i County Prosecutor Mitch Roth told Big Island Now in March that his office has been working with the state in an effort to be proactive on the issue and find the inmates best suited for release.

“We’ve been looking at some of the lesser offenses: failure to appear, traffic offenses, minor bench warrants, trespass and some of the smaller property crimes,” Roth said. “For a prosecutor, this is not an easy decision. It’s probably one of the most difficult decisions we have to make. At the end of the day, it’s about saving lives, but we have to make sure we’re keeping people safe as well.”

However, many Big Island residents say they won’t feel safe if upwards of 100 prisoners whose actions warranted jail time are set free.

Monica, a Puna mother who asked her last name not be used in any publication, said safety would be a concern for her if inmates were released back into Big Island communities. But beyond that, she said, there isn’t a strong argument to be made that turning those inmates loose would make any real difference in regards to virus spread.

“How would it prevent them from interacting or from spreading it? They’re just going to go out and live with other people,” she said. “I just don’t see enough reasoning behind (releasing them) to warrant doing it. I think it should just stay the way it is in regards to the legal system and who we’ve chosen to put behind bars.”

The State Office of the Public Defender got the ball rolling on potential prisoner releases by filing two petitions with the State Supreme Court regarding inmate release or arranging other accommodations to change confinement conditions in an effort halt the spread of coronavirus.

In its order, the Supreme Court consolidated the two petitions and appointed retired Intermediate Court of Appeals (ICA) Judge Daniel R. Foley as Special Master to work with the involved parties in a collaborative and expeditious manner to address the issues raised in the petitions.

After review, the Special Master will recommend a resolution while “protecting public health and safety,” a press release from the State Judiciary said. An initial summary report from the Special Master is due by April 9, 2020.

HCCC has already reduced its inmate population by 62 as part of efforts to thin prison populations across the state, dropping the overall number of those incarcerated there to 356. The facility is equipped with 200-beds.

Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said instead of releasing them, HCCC prisoners should transfer to state facilities like Kulani Honor Camp and Hale Nani “where these alleged ‘safe inmates’ can continue to be supervised.”

“Also note that none of the released inmates will be able to leave the island until that ‘essential’ travel ban is lifted,” he continued.

The State Office of the Attorney General has opposed prisoner release since the initial order was made by the Department of Public Safety to thin the crowd on cellblocks across Hawai‘i.

“The (released) individual may pose a danger to the victim, other persons or the community,” the AG said. “Additionally, the individual may flee and not return to appear as directed by the court to serve the suspended jail sentence.”

Organizations like the Hawai‘i Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have supported the Department of Public Safety and the Office of the Public Defender, taking up the inmates’ collective cause.

“Public health experts across the United States agree that during this COVID-19 crisis, overcrowded jails and prisons pose a great health risk to not only the people incarcerated but also to correctional staff, their families and the community at large,” said ACLU of Hawai‘i Legal Director Mateo Caballero.

“For that reason, courts and jurisdictions everywhere are taking bold and courageous action to reduce the population in their jails and prisons to meet basic public health and constitutional standards and ensure the safety and health of people under their care,” he continued. “Ultimately, this is about people with families and loved ones and our commitment under the constitution to not put their lives and health unnecessarily at risk.”

There had been no reported cases of COVID-19 at HCCC or any other state detention facilities as of Monday.

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.

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