Hawaii’s incarcerated population 5.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19, report finds


Nicole Pasia


Hawaii’s COVID-19 response for incarcerated people ranks 45th out of 50 states, according to a report the Prison Policy Initiative released last week — using data up until July 2021. Hawaii scored 125 points on a 445-point scale, and received a failing grade from the report. 


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The Corrections Division under the Hawaii Department of Public Safety (PSD oversees four jails and four prisons, as well as an additional facility on the mainland. As of Sept. 6, PSD facilities house 2,917 inmates, an occupancy rate of 82.7%. Two jails, the Hawaii Community Correctional Center and the Maui Community Correctional Center, are listed as over 100% capacity. 

The national report evaluated states’ COVID-19 response based on four metrics: Limiting the number of people in prisons, reducing infection and mortality rates, vaccinating the incarcerated population, and addressing basic health and mental health needs. The study said: 

“While some states performed well on one or two of these criteria, no state’s response to COVID-19 in prison has been sufficient. The highest letter grade awarded was a ‘C’, and most states completely failed to protect incarcerated people.”

Limiting the number of people in prisons

Hawaii received 64 out of 130 points on incarcerated population reduction. In March 2020, there were 4,836 incarcerated people in the state, according to population data from the Marshall Project. Most recently, 4,134 people were incarcerated —a 14.5% reduction. The report said Hawaii enacted two prison release policies during this time frame: releases for medical/compassionate reasons and minor offenses.

PSD spokesperson Toni Schwartz said in an emailed statement that the report was “not credible,” and the data weighed heavily on the release of prisoners. 

“With that said, even if Hawaii’s courts ordered the release of all inmates in our system, the highest grade PSD could possibly receive with this report’s scoring system is a B-.”

Schwartz pointed out that courts decide the detainment and release of inmates, not PSD. 

“Currently there is a petition from the Office of the Public Defender to the Hawaii Supreme Court requesting release of certain inmates due to concerns of COVID-19 in the prisons and jails. PSD is awaiting the decision from the Supreme Court.”

Reducing infection and mortality rates

Hawaii’s COVID-19 infection and mortality rates among its incarcerated population were both disproportionately higher than the general population as of July, according to the study. The study reported 1,418 positive COVID-19 cases — or 34.3% — among incarcerated people. The general population’s COVID-19 infection rate, by comparison, was just 2.5%. 

Schwartz questioned why the report gave zero points to Hawaii for this category, when it also states Hawaii had the lowest COVID-19 mortality rate in prisons in the nation (0.22%). 

However, when compared to the general population’s mortality rate (0.04%), Hawaii was the most disproportionate state in the country. Incarcerated people are 5.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19, according to the report. 


Image: Prison Policy Initiative


Vaccinating the incarcerated population

One area where Hawaii did relatively well was vaccination among the incarcerated population. The report said Hawaii had “high” inmate vaccination prioritization, despite being one of 15 state prison systems with less than 60% of its incarcerated population vaccinated. According to UCLA Law’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, which the study referenced, 54% of the incarcerated population was vaccinated as of July 1, 2021.

Schwartz said this number did not accurately reflect the prison vaccination rate, as it included data from state jails, which have a more transient population.

“The jails have a pre-trial population that changes daily so getting a complete count of fully vaccinated pre-trial detainees is not possible. In staying uniform with the rest of their reporting on the prison system, they should have just used the prison information.”

Schwartz said PSD provided the Prison Policy Initiative with vaccination data on June 21 for prisons and jails separately. Based on that data, PSD prisons had a vaccination rate of 73%, while jails had a 41.5% vaccination rate.  

Schwartz also detailed PSD’s current efforts to vaccinate its incarcerated population. This includes educating inmates on safe hygiene practices and social distancing and requiring them to watch a ten-minute COVID-19 educational video upon intake, and posting CDC educational flyers throughout facilities.

Addressing basic health and mental health needs

For the final COVID-19 response indicator, addressing health and mental health, the study looked to see if prisons enacted “the bare minimum to protect incarcerated people.” These measures included providing masks and hygiene products, free calls to loved ones, suspended medical co-pays, and mask and testing requirements. 

Hawaii ranked in the bottom quarter among the states (receiving 30 out of 115 points), and did not require COVID-19 testing for prison staff.

Schwartz said PSD began developing its pandemic response plan in February 2020, and has updated it several times to follow CDC and Department of Health guidance. PSD’s pandemic response plan is located here: https://dps.hawaii.gov/blog/2020/03/17/coronavirus-covid-19-information-and-resources/