Honolulu, Hawai‘i: The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai‘i (“ACLU of Hawai‘i”), coalition partners and public health experts are urging the Hawai‘i Supreme Court to heed public health advice about the risk of catastrophic spread of COVID-19 and immediately address the dangerous overcrowding in Hawai‘i jails and prisons.

The ACLU of Hawai‘i held a free webinar on Tuesday, April 7, 2020, discussing civil liberties, incarceration, racial and socioeconomic disparities and public health during the time of a COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar featured ACLU of Hawai‘i Executive Director Joshua Wisch, Legal Director Mateo Caballero and Smart Justice Campaign Director Monica Espitia. Among the public health experts who spoke as panelists were Dr. Kealoha Fox, an Obama Foundation Leader and Board member of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum; Dr. Seiji Yamada, MD, MPH is a Professor in the UH Dept of Family Medicine and Community Health; Dr. Scott Miscovich, President and Founder of Premier Medical Group Hawai‘i and one of the founders of the Hawai’i Homeless Healthcare Hui (H4); and Dr. Jamee Māhealani Miller, Co-Founder of criminal justice reform organization ʻEkolu Mea Nui.

ACLU of Hawai‘i Smart Justice Campaign Director Monica Espitia said: “It is imperative that we shift the narrative when it comes to incarceration and COVID-19. We put this webinar together so that public health experts could share accurate information on just how dangerous it currently is for the people in our jails and prisons who don’t necessarily need to be there right now. We need people to understand that releasing some people from jail and prison during the COVID-19 actually helps the safety and health of the greater community. A COVID19 outbreak in Hawaii’s prisons and jails will mean overloading our hospitals. It is essential to give prevention a legitimate chance by drastically reducing the population. We must act now.”

Per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people in jails and prisons are at a “heightened” risk for infections, such as COVID-19, due to living in such close quarters and most likely already in poor health condition. Hawaii’s jails and prisons are currently operating over capacity with overcrowded cells.

The ACLU of Hawai‘i also sent a letter co-signed by public health experts and partner organizations asking the Hawai‘i Supreme Court to immediately release certain incarcerated people, such as the elderly, pregnant and those with high risk medical needs (e.g., those with serious mental illness, diabetic, etc.).

Lorenn Walker, JD, MPH, Director, Hawai‘i Friends of Restorative Justice and Professor of Practice, Public Policy Center, University of Hawai‘i said: “Time is not on our side when it comes to ensuring that people living in Hawaii’s jails and prisons are protected against COVID-19. Our correctional facilities are overcrowded and lacking proper sanitation materials — they are clearly not equipped to handle an outbreak. But thousands of people’s lives are on the line. If lawmakers act now, we can mitigate the wildfire that’s just waiting to set loose.”

On Saturday, April 4, 2020, civil rights attorney Eric Seitz filed a motion seeking leave to file an amicus brief on behalf of public health and human rights experts in support of the Public Defender’s petition to reduce the incarcerated population. The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court granted the petition on Monday, April 6. Explaining that time is of the essence and that the realities of prison life create a “tinder box” situation, the public health and human rights experts urge the Special Master, Judge Dan Foley, to work to decrease the population in our overcrowded correctional facilities as quickly as possible, and not to further delay in ways that could give the virus time to enter the facilities and infect more people.

Eric Seitz said: “This is extremely urgent. Based upon the opinions of our experts, we believe that every hour, every day, that we delay the release of inmates unacceptably endangers the entire inmate population and the public.”

These actions follow the Hawai‘i Office of the Public Defender filing two petitions asking the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court to, among other things, appoint a special master to consider the humanitarian release during the escalating COVID-19 crisis of certain people in jail and prison.

On Wednesday, April 1, 2020, the ACLU of Hawai‘i and the Lawyers for Equal Justice (“LEJ”) filed an amicus briefalso supporting the Public Defender’s petition. On Thursday, April 2, 2020, the Court granted the motion to file the brief and also granted the Hawai‘i Office of the Public Defender’s motion and appointed Judge Daniel R. Foley as the special master “to work with the parties in a collaborative and expeditious manner to address the issues raised in the two petitions and to facilitate a resolution while protecting public health and public safety.”

ACLU Inmate Amicus Motion – FILED

HI clinicans for decarceration c-19 April 3.20

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