The transition from incarceration back into society has always been a challenge for Hawaiʻiʻs criminal justice system. Over the course of two months, the COVID-19 threat has moved hundreds of inmates back into the community – oftentimes with little to no support in navigating life outside jail or prison.
Cell phones. Theyʻve become a near-ubiquitous tool for communication, quick Google searches, and staving off boredom. But for some of the recently released inmates, not having a one could mean the difference between freedom and finding themselves back in jail.
“You can reoffend by not keeping an appointment, not calling in,” says Bob Merce, a retired attorney and prison reform advocate, ”We wanted to make sure they comply with the terms of their release and have a chance to really make a go of it.”
Merce is part of an ad-hoc group of attorneys, government authorities, advocates, and community organizations, spearheading the Emergency Re-Entry Project. The group has secured a private donation to help buy 400 cell phones for inmates released under COVID-19.
“We want to get those cell phones in the hands of those people so they can stay in touch with their lawyers, their probation officers, and to stay in touch with their families,” says Merce.
The group is also working to find shelter for those who might not have a family to go back to. Carrie Ann Shirota, another member of the group, says the aim is to secure shelter, potentially hotel rooms, for up to 200 inmates statewide and to offer comprehesive services on site.
“That would include case management, on-site support to assist with things like toiletries, clothing, medical health insurance, obtaining documents and also looking beyond this kind of pandemic time,” says Shirota.
Shirota, a former public defender, says thereʻs no official tally on inmates in need of shelter, cell phones, or other services. The Emergency Re-entry Group has focused most of its attention on the low-level, non-violent offenders released under the April Hawaiʻi Supreme Court order. But the need for re-entry support continues as more offenders are diverted away from incarceration and back into the community.
No cases of the virus have been found in correctional facilities statewide, according to the state Department of Public Safety. Jail populations have dropped by 823 inmates as of May 8, but most of Hawaiʻiʻs jails continue to operate above capacity. Kauaʻi Community Correctional Center is the only jail operating under capacity.
But continued reduction of Hawaiʻiʻs jail population is expected. The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court has ordered correctional facilities reduce its population by another 200 inmates to help meet "design capacity." This generaly means, one inmate per jail cell. This would allow the state to implement social distancing measures and isolate or quarantine any potential cases.
Shirota says the state lacks a coordinated re-entry system to help the more than 800 inmates that have been released from Hawaiʻiʻs jails under the pandemic.
“Do we want them to be successful? Which means success for their family and our community and decrease going back into the system?” says Shirota, “Or are we just going to let people come out without any support? And then we're shocked when there's a high level of recidivism.”
Hawaiʻi has an overall recidivism rate of over 50 percent. But with the pandemic, that rate could increase says Jeff Nash. Heʻs the Executive Director of Habilitat, a long-term drug rehabilitation organization who has recently taken in some of the released inmates.
“Right now, its really challenging because itʻs hard to get work. Itʻs hard to even in the best of circumstances to find and change housing,” says Nash, “Everything, the obstacles are compounded right now.”
These are obstacles Nash had to overcome two decades ago. He was homeless, battling addiction, and wound up in jail. He says his re-entry took a coordinated effort by everyone involved – lawyers, judges, public safety – but most importantly himself.
“Iʻve seen a lot of things over the last 25 years about what works and what doesnʻt work and how to get people back to a place of sanity, if you will. Where it stops the cycle of addiction and crime. Takes a lot of work and it doesnʻt work for everybody. But it still takes a willingness right?”