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Proposal Would Make Information on Inmate Deaths Public

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When a Hawaii inmate dies at any of the state's jails or prisons, the state Public Safety Department is required to provide a report to the governor withing 48 hours. A legislative proposal would require that same report be made available to the public and a copy given to the inmates' family.

It's all part of the conversation surrounding inmate deaths under COVID-19. The House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs will be voting on HB 796 on Wednesday.

The measure would require the state publicly disclose a deceased inmate's name, gender, age and cause of death. Public Safety Director Max Otani told lawmakers he's willing to improve transparency when it comes to inmate deaths but there are privacy issues to consider.

"If that can be addressed by saying what is the state's compelling interest to release this information, if possibly language could be added to identify criteria when public interest outweighs privacy, we should have no problem releasing that information," Otani said at the House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs hearing Tuesday.

But Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for Public Interest, doesn't buy the privacy argument.

"The privacy issues that the department has raised are not issues," Black said. "This body can decide what is of public interest and make sure that it's available to the public."

Supporters of HB 796 say disclosure would help identify policies and procedures within Public Safety that may be putting the health and safety of individuals at risk. The bill would also clarify that disclosure is not discretionary, says Deputy Public Defender Jacquie Esser.

"If such information is claimed to be privileged, then the director should cite the law in which it's relying upon to withhold the disclosure," Esser said.

So far, eight Hawaii inmates have died of the coronavirus while in state custody. Five of those deaths happened in January and were not publicly disclosed until Feb. 5.

Otani says the agency follows the advice of the state Attorney General's office when it comes to disclosing information on inmate deaths under COVID-19.

"We're not identifying names," he said. "We're giving age range, gender, facility died and the date that the person passed. Normally we don't put cause of death until we get the medical examiner reports."

Otani asked lawmakers to allow the agency to withhold reporting if a criminal investigation is pending, or if the information would harm or bring shame to the inmate or the inmate's family.

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