Page last updated: 4/8/2020
As the spread of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) makes its way across Hawai‘i and the United States, it is essential that all government officials follow public health experts’ recommendations to help ensure a response plan that protects the health, safety, and civil liberties of all — especially our most vulnerable populations.
The ACLU of Hawai‘i will be watching closely to make sure that the government’s response is scientifically justified and no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary. Check back here to stay up-to-date on what we’re doing to protect civil liberties in Hawai‘i amid this rapidly-changing COVID-19 environment.
On March 12, we sent a letter to Governor David Y. Ige, Lieutenant Governor Josh Green and the Mayors asking that when developing a response plan that protects the health, safety and civil liberties of all Hawai‘i residents to also consider: sharing accurate, timely information to the public; protecting vulnerable populations, such as people who are unsheltered and incarcerated; ensuring that everyone feels confident to get tested without fear of immigration enforcement, enlisting employers to ensure that those who are sick can stay home without fear of missing a paycheck, among other issues.
Jails & Prisons
People in jails and prisons are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses—such as COVID-19—because they are being held in close quarters and often in poor health conditions. To add to the concern, Hawai‘i prisons and jails are overcrowded and holding populations that exceed their operational bed capacities, making social distancing nearly impossible. To limit outbreaks of COVID-19 in these facilities, officials must develop plans quickly in coordination with local public health officials to ensure the safety of incarcerated people, medical staff, and correctional officers.
On March 12, we sent a letter to the Hawai‘i Department of Public Safety (“PSD”) urging it to take immediate action in developing a proactive, evidence-based plan with the Department of Health for the prevention and management of COVID-19 in the correctional and detention facilities under PSD’s oversight, both in the islands and in Arizona. Among the letter’s recommendations include but are not limited to: educating people in custody and staff about steps to prevent the illness, the provision of hygiene supplies, data collection and treatment.
On March 21, we sent a joint letter from the Office of the Public Defender, Kōkua Kalihi Valley, Lawyers for Equal Justice, Hawaiʻi, to Public Officials asking them to consider four crucial steps and commit to a plan that would mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons and jails.
On March 27, we sent a letter to the four police chiefs for the state of Hawai‘i offering guidance from a civil liberties perspective on the least restrictive means law enforcement can use with respect to COVID-19-related movement restrictions while ensuring that the health, safety and civil liberties of all Hawai‘i residents are protected. The letter asks law enforcement to acknowledge the dynamics police-enforced movement restrictions may have on marginalized, historically over-policed communities, such as the houseless population, and to take that into consideration when enforcing COVID-19-related restrictions.
On April 1, the Lawyers for Equal Justice and the ACLU of Hawai‘i filed an amicus brief supporting the Public Defender’s petition to appoint a special master to consider the humanitarian release of people from jails and prisons during the escalating COVID-19 crisis.
On any given day, we are concerned about the constitutionality of houseless “sweeps”—or the forced displacement of unsheltered people who are threatened with arrest—by law enforcement. Mayor Kirk Caldwell announcedon March 17 that the City and County of Honolulu would continue to conduct houseless sweeps as its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The next day on March 18, Caldwell announced the closure of public parks and their restrooms until April 30. This news was concerning. According to public health officials, being relocated to a shelter, where people are in close quarters to each other, increases someone’s risk for contracting COVID-19 compared to being allowed to stay in their own tents or other forms of shelter and also increases the risk for community spread. Instead, public health experts recommend houseless people remain in place and resources be brought to them.
We reached out to the City on March 17 and 18 regarding these concerns and did not receive a response. The ACLU of Hawai‘i, Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, public health experts and other advocates sent a joint press release on March 20 calling for a halt of the sweeps and for the bathrooms to reopen.
On March 22, we signed onto an open letter with Partners In Care asking policymakers to rethink policies and strategies surrounding COVID-19 and the houseless community. On that same day, we once again reached out to City Officials and sent out another press release announcing how the CDC released interim guidance that stated houseless encampments should not be cleared and that nearby restrooms are open and stocked with hand hygiene products. In other words, the City was violating this guidance.
Economic Justice & Healthcare Equity
The COVID-19 pandemic has economic consequences, and our state is not equipped to deal with the crisis. The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations estimates 2,300 people will lose their job as a result of the virus. On March 15, we signed onto a joint letter from the Hawai‘i Working Families Coalition urging the state to adopt policies that would protect families and keiki from the fallout from this public health crisis. Among those are eliminating or reducing the cost of COVID-19-related medical care, and expanding and increasing Unemployment Insurance benefits.
As public schools closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our team sought out to ensure that the rights of all students remain protected and that all students are treated equitably. On April 2, we signed onto a testimony to the Hawaii Board of Education ("BOE") with policy suggestions on COVID-19 preperation and responses. On April 6, we sent a letter to the BOE expressing concern about the public's ability to particpate in the virtual BOE meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
3/14/2020 – The Maui News: ACLU: Prepare coronavirus plan for jails, prisons
3/15/2020 – Hawaii Tribune Herald: Courts, cops, cells and COVID-19: Criminal justice system in Hawaii wrestles with virus threat
3/16/2020 – Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Public Safety Department is urged to have plan for prisons and jails during coronavirus pandemic
3/21/2020 – Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Oahu residents whose jobs put them at risk of contracting coronavirus can get tested free
3/23/2020 – Honolulu Civil Beat: Hawaii prosecutors retool policies to avoid filling up jails during pandemic
3/23/2020 – Honolulu Civil Beat: ‘Borderline criminal’: Honolulu not following CDC advice for homeless
3/24/2020 – Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Honolulu to reopen park restrooms while parks remain closed in response to coronavirus
3/26/2020 – Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Hawaii officials looking to reduce jail populations to limit COVID-19 spread
3/27/2020 – Hawai‘i Public Radio: Hawaii updates: drive-through ccreenings set; arrivals drop to under 1,600; case count stands at 120
3/30/2020 – Big Island Video News: Balance COVID restrictions with freedoms, ACLU tells police
3/31/2020 – Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Hawaii public defender recommends up to 426 inmates be released
4/1/2020 – Honolulu Civil Beat: Honolulu Mayor: prison may be ‘safest place’ to ride out COVID-19
4/1/2020 – Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Honolulu police make 9 arrests, issue 1,500 warnings and 180 citations for emergency law violations
4/2/2020 - Honolulu Civil Beat: More groups call on Ige to bring transparency back into government
4/2/2020 - Honolulu Civil Beat: Special Master appointed to recommend on COVID-19 jail releases
4/3/2020 - Honolulu Civil Beat: Hawaii National Guard called out to help with Coronavirus response
4/3/2020 - Honolulu Star-Advertiser: Hawaii Supreme Court assigns judge to oversee prisoner releases to combat coronavirus spread
Those who are feeling sick should stay home and contact your primary health care provider if you have concerns about your symptoms, particularly those with fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Individuals with general questions about COVID-19 can call Aloha United Way at 2-1-1 or text 877-275-6569.