Why the public is kept mostly in dark on loose prisoners

On any given day, hundreds of Hawaii’s prisoners are out and about, released during the day on work furlough, then back behinds bars again each night.

But it’s hard to know who they are, unless you know exactly who you’re looking for.

“If there’s a specific inmate you’re interested in, we have a special notification called the Vine system where they can actually go, sign up through the Internet and get notification when people start re-entering into society,” said Max Otani, deputy director of corrections at the Dept. of Public Safety.

But the system operates on a one-by-one case. The state does not release an entire list of prisoners on work furlough.

“We don’t see the benefit in that in where we notify the public,” Otani said. “Inmates going out on work furlough are trying to establish their lives. A lot of them want to remain low key and change the way they actually lived their lives in the past.”

Over the past seven months, KHON2’s Always Investigating has been challenging that through open-records demands and a case on appeal to the Office of Information Practices, the state’s open-records watchdog agency.

The Dept. of Public Safety doesn’t want the names out there, “so putting this out may cause some unwanted attention to them, having negative peers reconnect with them,” Otani said. “Also, there’s the issue of transporting things back into the facility. If I knew this inmate was leaving on weekends, someone may approach him and try to force him to bring contraband back to the facility.”

Critics of keeping the names under wraps include Honolulu’s prosecutor, himself a former DPS director. “The problem is these guys don’t have jobs. They’re not working. They’re out there on work furlough looking for jobs,” Kaneshiro said. “What kind of program is that?”

It’s program, DPS says, that makes life after prison easier for the inmates. “It really allows the inmates to touch the communities, reintegrate with families,” Otani said, “so when they’re actually released from their sentences and released from their paroles, they have a smoother transition out there.”

Sometimes those out for the day try to transition a bit too soon — as in they don’t come right back and have to be chased down. DPS says 17 have walked away so far this year.

“Some of them are committing crimes,” Kaneshiro said. “They’re committing property crimes. They commit sex assaults. All types of crimes.”

Last year convicted rapist Michael Lee Carter was picked up on another sex assault charge, a crime prosecutors say he committed while out on furlough.

“In the high-profile cases, notification goes to the prosecutor’s office,” Otani explained. “The victim advocate office is informed when these victim type cases are released.”

But the prosecutor says that’s like pulling teeth. “I heard there were 200 people they were going to put on work furlough. I asked for the list. (It) took them three months for them to give me the list,” Kaneshiro said, adding that many on the list committed crimes while out on work furlough.

DPS denied KHON2’s request for the work furlough list, saying it wouldn’t disclose it without a clear security concern to the public.

“They’re putting sex offenders on the work furlough program and they’re not being supervised,” Kaneshiro said. “I have people at the facilities calling me up saying they were concerned about too many inmates who were being placed on work furlough not being supervised, including sex offenders.”

DPS says 29 sex offenders are currently out on furlough, and that they are checked on at work at random. They won’t tell us where they’re working, which some say brings up another issue.

All sex offenders are supposed to be trackable, but the sex offender registry doesn’t have a category for work-furloughed inmates. It only says “incarcerated.”

So what about when they’re temporarily out?

“I think they should have to disclose it,” Kaneshiro said. “I mean if you have to disclose where a sex offender is in a community, I think you have to disclose where an incarcerated inmate is while he is working.”

DPS stresses there are far more complying than making trouble. “We have a great percentage of inmates that are doing really on furlough, that is benefiting from the furlough program,” Otani said.

“There must be some, but we don’t know, because we don’t have the list,” Kaneshiro said.

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