The Hawaii Department of Public Safety has released a new pandemic response plan for its jails and prisons that focuses largely on strict hygiene and distancing — difficult to achieve in a correctional environment.

But the plan fails to address something local groups have been urging the department and Gov. David Ige to consider and jurisdictions nationwide have already done — reducing population.

The new COVID-19 Pandemic Response Plan, posted on the department’s website Wednesday, was developed by VitalCore Health Strategies, a health care consulting company based in Kansas. It will serve as the guideline for Hawaii’s 10 correctional facilities, housing more than 5,000 inmates.

“All agencies, including the Department of Public Safety’s Corrections Division, are taking action to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections in our public servants and the populations we serve,” Ige spokeswoman Jodi Leong told Civil Beat.

Oahu Community Correctional Center Module 2 Medical Mental Health.
The state currently has no plans to release inmates as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Hawaii currently has no plan for inmate releases, although individual prosecutors, public defenders and judges have taken the initiative to reduce jail populations. The Office of the Public Defender has filed a petition with the state Supreme Court and asked it to issue an order compelling releases of certain low-risk offenders.

Releasing some inmates is under consideration, said Toni Schwartz, a public safety department spokeswoman.

“We have been in constant interactions with our judicial and criminal justice partners,” she said.

For now, the department’s pandemic response plan emphasizes the need for reducing contact between people at cafeterias, recreational activities and medication lines.

Public Safety already indefinitely suspended personal visits on March 13, though visits from attorneys are still allowed.

New intakes at jails should be screened for symptoms and asked whether they have traveled in recent weeks, the plan says. They should also be segregated from the other inmates.

Inmates who contract the virus should be isolated in a private cell or room, the plan says.

Schwartz told Civil Beat that the overcrowded facilities have the capacity to isolate inmates as described in the plan.

“We have procedures that have been in place for many years to deal with respiratory infection diseases,” she said. “This really is no different.”

She also said the department has “dramatically increased” the supply of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPEs, such as face masks, gowns and gloves.

Oahu Community Correctional Center Tour 2019 Entrance area.
The response plan says anyone entering the state’s correctional facilities should be screened for symptoms. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Employees who are feeling sick are advised to stay home, alert their supervisors and quarantine themselves for 14 days, according to the plan. Schwartz said no inmates or employees are suspected of having the virus.

Mark Patterson, chair of the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission, said the pandemic response plan does not address the overcrowding issue — a concern he brought up with Ige in a March 23 letter.

“How do you create room when you have a thousand people who are not capable of social distancing?” he said. “What is the expected number when the virus hits?”

Facilities such as the Oahu Community Correctional Center, where inmates triple-bunk because of overcrowding, aren’t going to have room for isolation or quarantine, he said.

“We’re not trying to clear out the jails and prisons for everything,” he said. “It’s just enough to make space for quarantine.”

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