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Judges Grant Early Release of Inmates Amid COVID Outbreak at HCCC

By Tiffany DeMasters
June 16, 2021, 7:28 AM HST
* Updated June 16, 7:29 AM
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The State Public Defenders Office in Hawai‘i County started filing motions for early release of inmates due to the COVID-19 outbreak at Hawai‘i Community Correctional Center. Approximately one-third of the inmate population has tested positive for the virus.

On Monday, June 14, five inmates were granted early release by Hilo District Court Judge Peter Kubota. On Tuesday, June 15, two inmates were granted early release by 3rd Circuit Court Judge Wendy DeWeese in Kona. Deputy Public Defender Ann Datta told Big Island Now on Tuesday, their office plans to file motions on a case-by-case basis and anticipates about a dozen more motions this week in Kona alone.

“People are exposed to the effects of COVID, which is potentially life-threatening, and the jail is overcrowded,” Datta said. “There’s a certain level of panic and stress because of COVID.”

Motions filed for early release are for inmates awaiting trial but can’t make bail due to financial hardship or for those sentenced to probation for drug possession with early release to a drug rehabilitation program.

The HCCC cluster was identified during the last week of May. As of June 15, The State Public Safety Department (DPS) reported 124 inmates positive for the virus. There are currently seven cases among staff, two of which are hospitalized. With an operating capacity of 226, the facility is now housing 344 inmates, according to the DPS bi-weekly report released June 7.

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DPS has been working with the Department of Health to test inmates and staff at all state facilities up to two to three times a week for several months. As of Tuesday, June 15, there was no case count update at HCCC.

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Due to the uptick in COVID infections at the jail, 3rd Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert DS Kim filed a request to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court asking for a temporary extension in the time requirement for arraignments.

On June 1, the Supreme Court granted Kim’s request and will remain in effect till July 31, unless otherwise modified or extended.

“These are extraordinary circumstances where the public health overrides the procedural requirements,” Kim told Big Island Now on Tuesday. “Once that gets back out into the community, here we go again.”

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On Tuesday, June 15, Kim sent a directive out to judges indicating that as they consider early release of inmates there be a condition requiring prisoners to have a negative COVID test and have received at least one dose of the vaccination. If a judge does release a COVID-positive inmate, they are required to go into quarantine.

“What we don’t want is to have some kind of outbreak in the community itself,” Kim said. “I believe that would be a sufficient safeguard.”

Transport to the courts has been suspended since the outbreak began three weeks ago. Due to an inter-facility lockdown, appearance in court by video hasn’t occurred since it would require the movement of inmates to a certain area of the jail.

According to DPS, HCCC is in constant contact with the courts to coordinate video arraignments and hearings when possible. Kim said he did have hearings using the jail’s video system on Tuesday and anticipates more to come.

Hawai‘i County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney has also been working with DPS to ensure justice isn’t delayed. County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen said he provided two iPads to the jail in an effort to allow for appearances by Zoom without having to move inmates.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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