An Open Letter on Protecting Our Incarcerated Loved Ones from COVID-19 Pandemic

April 9, 2020

Dear Governor David Ige, Attorney General Clare Connors, Honorable County Prosecutors, and Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda,

We need to help our people inside. The rapid COVID-19 outbreak and death toll continuing to rise in Oakdale Prison in Louisiana and Rikers Prison in New York shows the immense potential harm incarcerated people and staff in Hawai‘i are facing during this pandemic.

We’re all rightfully scared. We understand the alarming politics of releasing people from our prisons and jails. We know. But now is not the time to lead with fear, when our actions can save the people we all care about. No one deserves to die because they are kept in crowded, unhygienic dorms or cells. Releasing our families and friends from incarceration, including those who are elderly, medically vulnerable, and are serving time because of an inability to afford cash bail - is the right thing to do. It’s the medically necessary thing to do. 

Right now, we’re stocking up on toilet paper, food, and first aid kits all in the hope to protect ourselves and those we care about during this pandemic. For those of us who have experienced incarceration and with loved ones on the inside, we want what everyone wants — to keep our ‘ohana safe no matter where they are. We are parents, children, siblings, grandparents, friends, and members of every community in Hawai‘i. And we need to share what we’re hearing. Morale is low and anxiety is high from staff to incarcerated people. 

At a time when “physical” or “social” distancing is our greatest tool to prevent COVID-19 outbreak, people experiencing illness or suspected of are still being housed with others. People still lack masks, gloves, soap, hand sanitizer despite double-bunking and dorms. A COVID-19 outbreak in Hawaii’s prisons and jails will mean overloading our hospitals and limited supply of ventilators so it is essential to give prevention a legitimate chance by drastically reducing the population.

That’s why community members and organizations like the Campaign for Smart Justice at the ACLU Hawai‘i and other criminal legal advocates to ask that you please consider the following actions immediately, as only a drastic reduction in the population will keep everyone throughout Hawai‘i safe: 

  • Pretrial release: Protect incarcerated people, our communities, and correctional staff by releasing all people who are incarcerated without having been convicted of any crime and are simply there for their inability to afford cash bail.
  • Post-conviction release: Release as many people incarcerated post-conviction as possible, including but not limited to: all people over 55; individuals who have uncontrolled diabetes, respiratory conditions and/or are immunocompromised; people who will be released within one year; and all people who are eligible for parole and community supervision/release or who are currently incarcerated for technical parole or probation violations.
  • Ensure the commissary continues to operate and access to personal protective equipment for all staff and incarcerated people.
  • Free phone calls and medical co-pays during the pandemic.
  • Mental health support for incarcerated people and staff.

Every additional booking, transfer, delivery, and shift change comes with a risk — and it will not be detected with a thermometer until it is too late. We need to behave as if we ourselves have the virus, and be weary of passing it along. Now is the time for public officials, correctional officers, and people inside to work together, to recognize incarceration can quickly turn into a death sentence for many of our ‘ohana and communities.

Governor Ige, we urge you to take bold and immediate action to save lives in Hawaii’s criminal legal system. 

Here's what some of you have shared with us:

“With the current health issues, it's the only humanitarian solution to stop the spread!”

“My son was sent to Arizona by the state of Hawaii to be incarcerated there.  I am very concerned about his health as they are so far away from Hawaii.  Also, there are other inmates from other states that are moved in masses to this prison.  I am also concerned because of the outbreak occurring in the state of Arizona AND Arizona is not a state that has shown compassion to the incarcerated.”   

“It would be a shame for even one pa`ahao to die from COVID-19. Because the virus is so contagious, I cannot imagine it not spreading like wildfire within the prison(s).” 

“My Brother is an inmate in the Furlough program.  He has had a clean record with  NO write ups In the last 90% of his time served.  He has educated himself in multiple curriculum, has been involved with spiritual, religious, cultural education and discussions.  He was about to have his first day out in the community for his first interview the day stay home orders were affected.   He had several interviews aligned and now is not able to complete them.   I believe that those on furlough with good records should be among the first reintroduced if they have stable homes to receive them.   This would afford the system as much as 200 or more beds to relieve the prison population and mitigate the risk of rapidly spreading the Covid virus and overwhelming our health systems.   This also provides for a better success rate of releasing inmates that have a reason to strive and succeed.   They, also, because of security measures already in place have the means to be monitored.”

“This virus is no joke and because there is so much unknown, just do the right thing. There are other things you can do: collect passports, create a check-in website for the released persons for monitoring their whereabouts, etc.”

“I am concerned for everyone’s safety that is incarcerated.  Our state is not equipped to handle a pandemic inside or out.”   

“Hawaiinewsnow just reported that the age of most infected with covid 19 are under the age of 40. I pray that you, who are reps. and have authority in the jurisdiction system in Hawaii. Hawaii should strongly consider inmates, like my son with serious health conditions, be put on ankle bracelets or have their excessive bail reduced! I work hard for my money, as a hotel worker, who is now unemployed due to covid19 pandemic. 

He has compromised immune and respiratory health conditions. He also found it very hard to get a job due to his criminal background. He needs ongoing treatment, now that he is clean and sober, not incarceration in a facility that had a riot last due to conditions in prison. I am fearful for my son’s health and financial hardship in this time of covid 19 pandemic. This is why, please release inmates and my son.” 

“We were 15 people in one cell over the whole weekend at the Maui police station. One toilet, no disinfection, no masks. This isn't safe for anyone.” 

“My husband is being held in MCCC after being in a program, where he was making tremendous progress, after being there only 7 days. The prison is unfit and crowded- 4 PEOPLE to a cell. If the virus gets in there, our loved ones will be in even bigger trouble.”

“I'd add that anyone convicted of victimless crime should also be released depending upon severity of crime (i.e., marijuana use and/or sale versus methamphetamine use or sale). Even then, those prisoners should be held in safe shelter while they receive rehabilitative services.  Mahalo.”

“Incarceration on its own is difficult enough.  Paired with a potentially fatal disease, it's terrifying.  Please let’s not sentence people to death because they have to remain in facilities ill equipped to keep them and staff safe from COVID-19.  Release those that we can NOW.” 

“I feel that everyone on this planet  should be treated with dignity in a fair and just way.  Those individuals in charge have the power and love and the understanding to be the hero’s who give kindness, even to the prisoners.  Is that person you?  I hope so…”
“At a minimum, the prison should have all the soap, disinfectant and anything else to keep COVID 19 out and keep the inmates safe. The overcrowding caused a horrible situation for my son when he was in OCCC 4 years ago. He is still suffering from PTSD from the experience today and is on SSI because of it. “

“Laws are put into place to protect the public and maintain public order.  These extraordinary times test the aptness of some of our laws/ rules, the way we have done business.  In the interest of public safety and taking care of our citizens, I urge you to think out of the box and release from incarceration those individuals in the categories noted in this letter.  This would show moral leadership.”

“I fear that during confinement people will not be safe from the virus if it gets started in jail. Incarcerated people are not there to be condemned to death.” 

“There are far, far too many people incarcerated in our country, including in Hawaii.  And conditions are poor to say the least in those prisons.  Rehabilitation isn't happening nearly enough.  And worst, really, is that many are in jail for want of bail money, a government scam.  Let all the non-dangerous people, and especially the elderly and the medically vulnerable,  go home!”

“My son is incarcerated at Hilo Jail.  Sleeping on the floor. 8 men in a 4 man cell.  NO exercise,  no fresh air,  no educational opportunities for true "correction",  inhumane by any standards.  Torturous...  he has autism, which was never addressed in his sentencing.  Horror chamber. Freezing, no warm clothes. Filthy. We need to treat these people as humans, programs, to restore families, restorative justice, help addicts.  They are all sons, daughters,  husbands, fathers,  mothers, wives, that need help to break destructive cycles. Mental health programs. PLEASE. Revise our system with smart justice.”

“Release matters cause they're in a confined area where it's more riskier to get the virus.”  

“My friend is in Hilo prison. First time non violent . He has served 14 months and completed all programs and has family support. Many like him that are in so much danger right now. Please consider releasing some prisoners! Thank you!!”

“I am a nurse and a public health professional and understand that we need to minimize the risk of severe illness and death  for all our citizens.  Right now, there are several categories of citizens who are at immense risk as COVID begins to spread in our communities,  which include  nursing home patients,  the homeless and prisoners.  They are all existing in situations beyond their control, in tight quarters with other people and unable to practice social distancing and other protective measures. It is up to us to  find ways to keep them safe.   And that in turn will have a huge impact on the severity of the pandemic here…”

“My brother is currently on furlough and considered community.  He has had zero write ups for the last 90% of time served.  Furlough can be extended to relieve overcrowding prisons and hopefully relieve overburdened healthcare systems. Furlough inmates also have to wear monitors so security measures are already in place.  They should be allowed back into the community to make room for those that need to remain incarcerated.”


“Non violent offenders should be released to avoid mass infection. Especially knowing richer people can bail themselves out sometimes w/more worse offenses. Trapping a non violent offender that is low income can be a death sentence. Please release. Determine Which offenses are not likely to harm the public and let them go. Shouldn’t be decided on money, decide on lesser offenses. Thank you.”

“Incarcerated people are safer at home.”

“I have not experienced incarceration during a pandemic but I did experience it while trying to leave an abusive relationship and was arrested for false allegations. I spent two days in jail for a crime that I didn’t do until all charges were dropped due to hearsay and I was released. That memory still does not leave me to this day. And there may be inmates with a similar circumstance who may not even get the opportunity to be released before they get sick from covid19 and possibly die. Additionally, there are those not relating to my own personal testimony. Inmates that are non-violent offenders or those who have served almost all of their time and have a year or less left, face getting very sick from covid19 with the possibility of death especially considering jail conditions it doesn’t make self-isolation for those positive or social distancing from others within 6 feet distance possible. Please consider the request that we’re asking in the letter. Mahalo.”

“I especially appeal for the release of my friend who is close to age 70, is medically vulnerable and has already done more than 20 years in prison.”

“Our system is going to collapse. Nonviolent criminals should be released so our resources can focus on more important issues.”