ACLU Of Hawai’i Shares Open Letter Signed By 136 Advocates and Impacted People Urging Officials to Take Immediate Action to Protect Incarcerated Population

Affiliate: ACLU of Hawaii
April 9, 2020 7:45 pm

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HONOLULU — The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU of Hawai‘i”) and ‘Ekolu Mea Nui released an open letter to public officials asking them to take immediate action to better protect incarcerated people and staff and address a potential COVID-19 outbreak in Hawai‘i jails and prisons. The letter was signed by 136 members of the public and included quotes by advocates and those with incarcerated loved ones.

The letter asks for the release of certain incarcerated people — such as those being held pretrial and are therefore innocent in the eyes of the law, kūpuna, and those with chronic medical conditions, among others — in order to reduce the population, which would lower the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. The letter also asks that officials ensure there is personal protective equipment (i.e. hand sanitizer, face masks, etc.) for all staff and incarcerated people as well as free phone calls, medical co-pays and accessible mental health support.

ACLU of Hawai‘i Smart Justice Field Organizer Shayna Lonoaea-Alexander said: “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. What we need right now is for our government leaders and officials to act with the sense of urgency our families deserve.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that because people are living in such close quarters and many have existing medical conditions, jails and prisons are at a “heightened” risk for infections, such as COVID-19. Hawaii’s jails and prisons are currently overcrowded with sometimes up to four people living in a cell built for one, making social distancing nearly impossible.

Below are some quotes from individuals featured in the letter (please note that quotes were kept anonymous in order to protect people’s identity):

“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.”

“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 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…”

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