Mass testing at the Oahu Community Correctional Center has detected inmates or staff with COVID-19 in almost all of the jail’s 19 housing units, and the jail administration has been unable to properly separate all of the infected prisoners from those who are well, according to staff at OCCC.

In one recent case, healthy inmates who were housed in an area with infected prisoners openly made threats against inmates who were known to be ill, which was apparently an attempt to force the jail administration to move the sick prisoners to some other part of the jail, according to jail staff who agreed to discuss the situation provided they are not identified.

Preventing the spread of the disease at OCCC has also been complicated by gang rivalries, staff members say. Even after inmates test positive, the OCCC administration must sort through which infected prisoners can be placed in which quarantine housing units to try to avoid conflict between members of opposing gangs, according to jail staff.

OCCC is the state’s largest jail, and as of Monday was holding 864 male and 109 female inmates. Mass testing has so far identified 242 inmates there who are infected with COVID-19, and 43 staff members with the disease. That is the largest infection cluster in Hawaii so far.

The Oahu Community Correctional Center, where 241 inmates and 43 staff have been infected with COVID-19. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

When asked Friday about the staff concerns and reports regarding the mixing of inmates who are ill with prisoners who are healthy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety said in a written statement, “Inmates who test positive or negative are placed in designated housing units within the facility and separated as determined by medical staff.”

However, Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda did briefly discuss how the jail is managing the mix of ill and healthy inmates while testifying before the Hawaii Supreme Court on Aug. 14.

Espinda said the jail has 288 cells that house 623 inmates, with the rest housed in dormitories on the jail grounds. He said two inmates who test positive for COVID-19 may be housed in a cell together, and told the court it would be a “physical impossibility” to house every ill inmate in a single cell.

Espinda also explained that in one jail dormitory called Annex 1, 70 out of 110 inmates tested positive, and those 70 infected prisoners were being housed together in that same dorm. They are separated from another dormitory in Annex 1 by an open common area that is about 40 yards deep, and the ill inmates are not allowed in the common area, he said.

Associate Justice Michael Wilson then asked Espinda if there has been a determination that housing ill inmates together in close quarters has no significant impact on their health, and Espinda replied: “I don’t make those decisions. We work as closely as we can with our health care unit to best utilize the best basis we have.”

At the time only 126 inmates had tested positive for the virus, and Espinda was asked if social distancing would be possible within the jail with that many infected inmates.

He replied that jail staff tries to follow the guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Protection, but “if it is known that we have two to three people in a cell, I think it is fair to say that it is a physical impossibility to maintain social distancing in circumstances like that.”

OCCC prison jail EIC forum Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda. 28 sept 2016
Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda said social distancing in a two- or three-man cell is a “physical impossibility.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

To create extra space on the jail grounds, Espinda said the jail was trying to set up tents on a recreation field, and has ordered commercial isolation cells that are will be delivered in October.

The state Supreme Court issued two rulings this week to try to quickly reduce the population at OCCC by ordering the release of prisoners who were being held there for non-violent misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor offenses, and establishing an expedited release process for non-violent felony offenders who are serving less than 18 months in jail, or are awaiting trial or sentencing.

But the spread of the disease may have also interfered with that effort. The court order does not allow for the release of inmates who test positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results, and jail staff report that more than two dozen misdemeanor offenders tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

Corrections officials reported that five inmates were released earlier this week under the expedited processes set up by the court. Another 23 were released on Wednesday, 25 were released Thursday, 11 were released Friday, and 31 were released Saturday, according to records released by the department.

Jail staff said significant numbers of corrections workers are either in quarantine after testing positive or are taking leave because they are afraid of becoming infected, and some of the remaining staff report being forced to work 24 hours at a stretch to cover essential jail posts.

They also expressed alarm that staff who are tested at the jail are then sent to their posts. Staff argued it should be mandatory that staff who are tested go home to isolate until they get the results.

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