HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Reform advocates are asking state prison officials tough questions over recent COVID-related inmate deaths at the Halawa Correctional Facility.
The virus has killed six inmates at the prison, including one man who had served behind bars for 30 years and was set to be released this month.
“I just don’t understand how this possibly can happen in our system and it is just appalling to me that number one why wasn’t he released?” said attorney Robert Merce, who testified during a meeting of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission.
“He should have been released long before he caught the disease and why wasn’t his family notified for three weeks?”
The man’s family said the inmate tested positive on Dec. 30 and was sent to Pali Momi Medical Center. But they said they weren’t informed until Jan. 20. He died 10 days later.
“It is egregious with some of these deaths that we don’t have accurate information and that the families were not notified in a timely manner,” said attorney Carrie Ann Shirota.
Prison officials disputed that account.
“The family was notified the inmate was in the hospital. It was the daughter and not the sister because the daughter was the next of kin,” said Tommy Johnson, deputy director for Corrections at the Department of Public Safety.
When asked why it took so long to notify family members, Department of Public Safety Director Max Otani added: “The family is usually notified if the inmate’s condition takes a turn for the worse.”
That prompted a sharp rebuke from attorney Robert Merce.
“When someone gets a fatal disease that has killed half a million people in our country, you’d think that would be a turn for the worst,” he said.
During the meeting, the commission urged prison officials to start conducting in-depth reviews anytime an inmate dies in custody. They also said prison officials should improve how they notify the next of kin when a person gets seriously ill.
Merce noted that other states allow inmates to waive their medical privacy rights on a limited basis so that their closest relatives can be better informed about their medical status.
“These prisoners and their families are not widgets on Amazon where you’re buying a dozen pins. These are humans beings who suffer,” added commission member and retired Circuit Court and Family Court Judge Michael Town.
“We have a fiduciary duty ― think about that a fiduciary duty just like children in school, just like (Child Protective Service) placements ― to protect them.”