Lawmakers to Take a Hard Look at Correctional System After COVID-19 Hits 46 Percent of Inmates

Jan 15, 2021

State lawmakers are taking a hard look this session at some of the long-standing issues contributing to the spread of the coronavirus in Hawaiʻi’s jails and prisons. According to the latest data from the state Public Safety Department, nearly half of Hawaiʻi inmates have contracted COVID-19 while behind bars.

Overcrowding at Hawaiʻi’s jails and prisons is nothing new, but the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak led to early inmate releases. Representative Takashi Ohno, chair of the House Committee on Corrections, Military, and Veterans Affairs, wants a thorough review of those actions.

“Did it deter covid-19 in our jails and prisons? Did it compromise public safety?” says Ohno, “What happened to some of these folks who were released?”

He says he’s personally invested in questions surrounding recidivism. Ohno says public safety has been struggling over the years to fill vacancies that could keep inmates from coming back.

“We're taking a look at their reentry programs, intake service centers and the correctional industries division,” says Ohno, “These types of activities are all things that are hopefully, hopefully reducing recidivism and trying to help make the community a little more safer.”

Ohno, who represents Nuuanu, Liliha, and ʻĀlewa Heights, says the pandemic also brings with it opportunities for Hawaiiʻ’s incarcerated population.

“Some of the issues surrounding prisoners is that they have a lack of access to medical professionals or mental health professionals,” says Ohno, “I think that we all found that telehealth or being able to get in touch with people who can provide those services now is a lot more realistic and a lot more feasible.”

Ohno also plans to introduce legislation that would secure funding for the Oversight Commission on Hawaii Correctional Systems. The all-volunteer board spent its first year in business without any staff to carry out its work.

“They've been doing it kind of by pulling up their bootstraps,” says Ohno, “So I do hope that they can get some staff to continue their work and keep our government responsible and accountable.

More than 2,000 Hawaii inmates and public safety staff have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began. According to the state Public Safety Department, COVID-19 has infected 1,871 Hawaiʻi inmates and 208 staff.

COVID-19 Testing Report by the state Department of Public Safety. As of January 14, 2021.
Credit Department of Public Safety

Six inmates are currently being hospitalized for the coronavirus, and two inmates have died of COVID-19 while incarcerated at the state-contracted Saguaro Correctional Facility in Eloy, Arizona. Public Safety is currently trying to contain an outbreak at the Hālawa Correctional Facility that has grown to infect 643 inmates and 71 staff.