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Hawaii Inmate Deaths Are The Highest In 10 Years. But The State Can’t Say Why Corrections officials still aren’t providing a cause of death for 20 of the 23 prisoners who died in Hawaii prisons and jails last year.

by Kevin Dayton

Hawaii had more inmates die in its prisons and jails last year than any other year in at least the past decade, a grim statistic that includes at least six prisoners who died after becoming ill with COVID-19 in the state’s largest prison.

The 23 deaths recorded in Hawaii correctional facilities in 2021 are more than any other year since 2012, but officials with the Department of Public Safety could not say if that death toll is an all-time record. The mortality data compiled by the department only extends back to 2012, according to a spokeswoman.

All but one of the inmates who died last year were men, and Halawa had the most deaths by far with 13. Oahu Community Correctional Center reported three deaths, and Maui Community Correctional Center reported two deaths last year. The other fatalities were scattered across five other correctional facilities in Hawaii and Arizona.

The pandemic had a significant impact on the number of fatalities inside. The state announced last February that six unidentified prisoners at Halawa Correctional Facility died in January and February of last year in what were described as “COVID-19-related deaths.”

Corrections officials don’t identify prisoners who die in custody, but they say five of those who died with the coronavirus last year were over 65 years old, and the sixth was between 60 and 70 years old.

COVID-19 has been blamed in a total of nine inmate deaths in the Hawaii correctional system since the start of the pandemic.

Unlike other states, Hawaii generally does not announce inmate deaths as they occur, and corrections officials no longer publicly identify the inmates who die in custody. That means the circumstances surrounding most of last year’s deaths are a mystery.

Data on fatalities released by the Department of Public Safety in response to a request from Civil Beat gives specific causes for just three prisoner deaths last year, attributing one death to suicide, one to respiratory disease, and one to heart disease.

The one suicide last year was a male inmate in his 50s who died at the Maui jail in early July, according to a partially redacted death report filed with the governor’s office last year.

The other 20 deaths were listed under an “All Other” category, and the department said they will remain classified as that way until the deaths are “further clarified by pending reports.” Those cases include most or all of the deaths the department previously said were linked to COVID-19.

In some cases family members have come forward to identify inmates who died, which can provide a window into what is happening inside. One of those cases involves Kanikahekili “Kahe” Cuizon, 38, who was at Halawa awaiting his release on parole when he died on July 15.

An autopsy by the Honolulu Medical Examiner concluded Cuizon’s death was accidental, and was caused by a dose of synthetic cannabinoid commonly known as “spice.”

“Ma, come on”

“They said that my son was found unresponsive in his cell, that he choked on his food, and he didn’t make it,” Jogene Cuizon said.

She wept as she described Kahe Cuizon, saying, “He was my rock, my son. A lot of my fears, or anger, when I would get angry, or when I was afraid or something, he would correct me in his own way. ‘Ma, you can’t be like that. Ma, come on.’”

The department said in a written statement there are a variety of factors that may have contributed to the high number of prison deaths last year, but “it would be pure speculation” to guess at what caused the increase in 2021 until the department receives more information on the cases where reports are still pending.

In the past, the department has pointed to long-term substance abuse by prisoners and the rough lives that many inmates have lived on the streets as contributing causes to fatalities in the correctional system.

According to the department, inmates’ physiological age “is 10-15 years older than their chronological age due to the stresses associated with conditions they were exposed to prior to incarceration.”

Wanda Bertram, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, said there was a 46% increase in prisoner deaths nationwide from 2019 to 2020 that was clearly caused by the pandemic. National data is not yet available for 2021, but she expects that elevated death rate to have continued into last year as the pandemic dragged on.

Part of the problem has been that when prison medical units are overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, other types of care provided to chronically ill inmates may also suffer, she said.

COVID-19 spread rapidly in Hawaii’s overcrowded correctional facilities, and the numbers of infections surged again this year. As of Tuesday, the department reported nearly 836 prisoners in eight correctional facilities had active COVID-19 cases. The total inmate population is nearly 4,100.

Hawaii correctional facilities averaged slightly more than 14 deaths per year over the last decade, but remained flat from 2019 to 2020 at 16 deaths for each of those years, according to Hawaii officials.

While correctional systems in other states such as Nevada routinely announce inmate deaths as they occur and provide at least some information about the prisoners who die, Hawaii does not.

California, Arizona and Oregon also each announce deaths as they occur, and disclose varying amounts of information surrounding the circumstances of each death.

“They are not announcing
deaths, period”

Hawaii Department of Public Safety officials have announced some deaths related to COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, but do not routinely publicly announce deaths in custody as they occur.

Bertram said it is not uncommon for states to “hoard” information about inmate deaths by refusing to identify inmates who die or how they died. “What is uncommon, and what surprises me about Hawaii, is that they are not announcing deaths, period,” she said.

“It’s uncommon for a state prison system to not let the public know when someone has died, to not make that available knowledge, and I think that should be something that the prison systems should have to do,” she said.

“We need to be holding these institutions accountable for what happens inside, and we will never do that until we see what is actually happening,” she said. “We need as a public to show these institutions that we care enough to demand the information.” And knowing when deaths occur in correctional facilities is “very, very basic stuff,” she said.

“What everybody with an incarcerated loved one knows is that prisons are inhumane institutions,” Bertram said. “I basically want to see everybody who is responsible for what goes on in prisons held accountable for what’s going on there, and the first step to that is shining a light on what’s going on inside.”

In October, Civil Beat filed a lawsuit in First Circuit Court in Honolulu asking the court to require corrections officials to release more information about prisoners who die in custody, including their names.

The lawsuit cites the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act, which requires that all government records are open to the public unless access to them is restricted or closed by law.

Corrections officials have argued they are prohibited under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Affordability Act, or HIPAA, from releasing the names of the deceased inmates.

However, that claim “does not justify withholding identifying information from statutorily required notices regarding the deaths of individuals entrusted to the Department’s custody,” according to the lawsuit. That lawsuit is pending.

ACLU of Hawaii said in a written statement that the 2021 fatalities demonstrate “Hawaii’s jails and prisons are unsafe.”

“Life has not gone back to normal for most of us, yet the people who live inside our jails and prisons are treated as though the pandemic does not exist. The danger from a combination of COVID and overcrowding continues unabated,” the organization said.

“From the continued criminalization of poverty, to the persistent failure to reform a broken bail system, to the re-incarceration of people for technical violations of parole and probation, we continue feeding people into this system that has no safe place to put them,” the ACLU statement said.

ACLU called on state lawmakers to pass laws to reduce the prison and jail populations.

Jogene Cuizon said she now wants to help with prison reform in Hawaii, and was angry that the warden at Halawa would not meet with her when she traveled to the prison last July to collect her son’s possessions.

Kahe Cuizon “was one great man, he was a great loss to us, and to his children,” she said. He had a son and four daughters, she said, and “prison lives matter. We’re the people. Prison lives matter.” 

This article was originally published by Honolulu Civil Beat on February 9, 2022. It is reprinted here with permission.

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