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Circuit Court Orders Hawaii to Release Names of Prisoners Who Die in State’s Jails and Prisons

by Keith Sanders

On November 14, 2022, a Hawaiian court ordered the state Department of Public Safety (DPS), the agency that runs state prisons and jails, to reveal the names of those who have died while incarcerated by the state.

The decision by Judge John M. Tonaki of the state’s First Circuit Court belatedly mirrors similar policy followed in other state carceral systems. Honolulu Civil Beat, a local news and advocacy organization, filed suit in 2021 when DPS rejected a request for all reports on prisoner deaths in 2020 and 2021.

The 23 deaths recorded in Hawaiian prisons and jails in 2021 were more than any other year since 2012, but DPS couldn’t provide a cause of death for any of them, or even a name. [See: PLN, Jan. 2023, p.14.] Six suicides in five years at the Hawaii Correctional Facility in Maui, as well as details of several other deaths in state prisons that were leaked by family members and staff, brought attention to the conditions inside Hawaii’s lockups.

DPS argued that it was prohibited from “disclosing individually identifiable health information” by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. But withholding the information was not always DPS policy. Prior to 2020, the agency released the names of those who died in its facilities. That changed on the advice of then-Attorney General Clare E. Connors (D), in what Civil Beat saw as an apparent attempt to keep the public in the dark about deaths inside state lockups.

Brian Black, Executive Director of Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, filed the suit. He said that when “society has entrusted care and treatment of individuals to a particular government official, then there should be some accountability if something goes wrong.”

Judge Tonaki noted that state law requires an autopsy for any prisoner who dies in state custody, and he emphasized that autopsy reports “are public records by law.” DPS’s interpretation of HIPAA, he added, “was much too broad.”

DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz promised that the agency “will comply with the judge’s order,” adding that the position of Director Max Otani “has always been to amend the statutes to allow the release of this information.”

The office of Holly Shikada (D), who was appointed by Gov. David Ige (D) after Connors was promoted to the federal court for the District of Hawaii in January 2023, has so far announced no appeal of the order. See: Honolulu Civil Beat, Inc. v. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, Haw. Cir. (1st Cir.), Case No. 1CCV-21-0001329.

Additional source: Honolulu Civil Beat

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