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Prison Oversight Commission Requests Analysis of Inmate Deaths

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Oversight Commission on Hawai?i’s Correctional Systems is requesting an analysis of inmate deaths at state jails and prisons. So far eight Hawai?i inmates have died of COVID-19 while in state custody, and their relatives are looking for answers.

Charla Manuel’s older brother Bobby was one of five inmates who died of COVID-19 at the H?lawa Correctional Facility last month.

“My brother, growing up he was always the kolohe one in the family, you know michevious. But if you needed help, he was always there to help,” says Manuel, “My brother used his savings to build a tiny home on his daughter’s property. He always talked about it. He was just so excited to get out.”

He was set to be released this week after serving more than 30 years for felony sexual assault. Manuel says her brother contracted COVID-19 at H?lawa and spent three weeks in the hospital before the family was notified by hospital staff. Bobby died 10 days later. Manuel says the family still has not heard from the Department of Public Safety.

“I want someone to have some accountability and to find out why it took this long. I mean, it doesn't change anything. But then at least, you know, it gives us some answers,” says Manuel, “No other family should have to go through this.”

State Public Safety Director Max Otani told the Oversight Commission for Hawai?i Correctional Systems insists the family was notified when Bobby’s health began to deteriorate. But he says families aren’t usually notified of an inmate’s hospitalization for security reasons.    

“A lot of times, it’s security reasons and it’s unknown how long the person would be there...But the family is usually notified if the inmate’s condition takes a turn for the worse,” says Otani, “And at that point, either a personal visit or a virtual visit is offered at that time.”

Tommy Johnson, Deputy Director of Corrections, says the Department doesn’t always ask inmates if they’d like to notify their family members when they are hospitalized. But the Department does notify family members if inmates ask.

“Then we can do that and try to set up the visitations. But again if the inmate doesn’t authorize us to release that information, we’re not going to be able to release it,” says Johnson.

Director Otani says oftentimes there’s also conflicting information as to who the official point of contact may be for an inmate, and he doesn’t want to release information to the wrong person.

Commissioner and former judge Mike Town says he gets the confidentiality argument, but he says sometimes withholding information could compromise public safety.

“I’m more interested in this fatality review to figure out how do we protect the next person,” says Town, “See cause when someone dies, it gets everyone’s attention.”