The Attorney General’s Office is blocking the release of information related to the COVID-19 outbreak at the state’s largest jail, citing security concerns and the threat of litigation in connection with what has emerged as the largest infection cluster in the state to date.

On Monday, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Itomura interrupted an online discussion of the response to the Oahu Community Correctional Center outbreak during a meeting of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission to warn the commissioners they were discussing information that is deemed confidential.

Then on Tuesday, state Sen. Clarence Nishihara told reporters he was advised in an email from the Attorney General’s Office that lawmakers could not publicly disclose what was said in a closed-door briefing on OCCC by corrections officials for select lawmakers.

Senator Clarence Nishihara speaks in opposition to Nolan Espinda confirmation.
Sen. Clarence Nishihara said the Attorney General’s Office warned him not to disclose publicly what was said in a closed briefing for lawmakers about COVID-19 infections at OCCC. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The briefing on Monday involved a lively discussion in which lawmakers sought information on “what was going on, not only just the numbers that have been increasing but the procedures that they have in place, how they are handling the COVID cases that they do have, how they are protecting the (adult correctional officers) at the prison, how they are protecting the inmates as well,” Nishihara said.

He called a press conference Tuesday to discuss OCCC with the media, but then told reporters that “there was some concern raised by the Attorney General’s Office, I just got an email, saying that because of possible ongoing litigation, that we couldn’t discuss anything of what occurred at the meeting that we had.”

“I think it’s a canard,” Nishihara said of the concern about litigation.

He added: “There are conflicting answers to what the director says, and what people have told us, so I think it needs further oversight and possible investigation to see what exactly is going on, because the guards themselves are very concerned and very fearful for their lives and their families’ lives, as well as the inmates.”

Public Safety officials reported Wednesday afternoon that 244 inmates and 51 staff at OCCC have tested positive for COVID-19. The jail has been chronically overcrowded, and was holding 973 men and women inmates in mid August.

The state Supreme Court established an expedited release program for inmates this month to try to reduce the jail population and slow the spread of the virus, and that process so far has resulted in the release of 132 lower-risk prisoners.

Jail staff have reported a lack of personal protective equipment, inappropriate mixing of inmates who have the virus with those who do not, and an inadequate isolation process for newly arrived prisoners, among other problems at the jail.

The United Public Workers and the Hawaii Government Employees Association on Tuesday called for the resignation of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda, who is responsible for the operations of all state jails and prisons. The unions represent corrections officers and civilian employees at the facilities.

Nishihara said he is considering holding a public hearing soon to discuss the OCCC situation.

“I think the public is certainly interested in knowing more information because they’re not getting very much information,” he said, referring to Espinda and the governor’s office.

At the Monday meeting of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Itomura interrupted a question by former Public Safety Director Ted Sakai in an effort to keep that discussion confidential as well.

Sakai asked about plans to change the use of Module 20 at OCCC to help separate different groups of inmates, saying he wanted to know who is in the module now, and who would be moved there. He said he asked the question “so we can have an overall picture of what the situation is at OCCC.”

The Oahu Community Correctional Center in Kalihi is the site of the largest COVID-19 infection cluster in the state. Civil Beat

But Itomura said that information was contained in a confidential document delivered to commission members that same day, and said discussing the uses of specific housing units could raise security issues. She said Sakai should not ask the question publicly, and the discussion should be held in an executive session that would not be open to the public.

Commissioner Martha Torney told Itomura there were portions of the document that could and should be made public, partly because they were responses to questions commission members had posed to the department in previous public meetings. The department chose to respond to those questions in writing, but then stamped the document as confidential, Torney said.

Itomura then acknowledged she had not actually read what the department said in the letter.

“All I can say is that they asked that it be checked confidential at this time,” Itomura told Torney. “Now, again, there might be a public version that could be released of that, certain portions may have to be redacted and so forth, but right now, not having looked at that document, I can’t say that.”

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