Two weeks ago a fight broke out in a dorm-style living area called Annex 1 at Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Staff rushed in from other parts of the jail as backup for the adult corrections officers on the scene. Four inmates had attacked another prisoner, and for a time the situation in the room was mayhem.

More than 100 inmates were housed in the annex, which is an area corrections officials now know is one of four “hot spots” in the jail where inmates or staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

“The cases were already in there,” said one staff member, recalling the fight. “So, you get 15 guys responding to a backup, grabbing guys, slamming them — you cannot just not touch them, they’re beating the shit out of each other, you’ve got to grab ’em. There’s blood, there’s fucking spit, there’s sweat, you grab them, you slam them, you handcuff them.”

Staff at OCCC point to incidents such as that fight to help explain how infections in the state’s largest jail have spun out of control. The state Department of Public Safety announced Thursday that 86 inmates and 19 staff members have tested positive so far at the jail. The staff spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution.

Oahu Community Corrections Center OCCC.
A significant COVID-19 outbreak was reported Thursday at Oahu Community Correctional Center, the state’s largest jail. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Staff cited a variety of problems with the state’s response to the coronavirus threat at the jail, and Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda publicly acknowledged Thursday that corrections workers in some cases have cut short what is supposed to be a mandatory 14-day quarantine for inmates when they are first admitted to OCCC.

That quarantine is supposed to last for the two-week incubation period for COVID-19 to prevent the spread of the virus inside the facility. But Espinda said overcrowding in the unit where the prisoners were quarantined prompted jail staff to move some prisoners out into the general population early.

OCCC staffers say that mass testing began this week at Annex 1, and the department acknowledged Thursday that of the 110 inmate test results it received Wednesday night, 70 prisoners tested positive. Public Safety officials now say they plan to test all 19 living units in the jail, which as of Thursday held 968 men and women.

Hours later on Thursday, the state health department released conflicting data that suggests the OCCC cluster may be even larger than corrections officials have reported. Health officials announced that “at least 116 cases are attributable to OCCC, with 24 staff and 92 inmates having tested positive for COVID-19,” according to a written statement from the department.

The Hawaii Office of the Public Defender on Wednesday filed a request with the state Supreme Court asking that the state once again establish an expedited process for releasing lower-risk inmates to reduce the spread of infection, and asking that the corrections system be required to test all inmates and staff for COVID-19.

Staff said the known “hot spots” at OCCC include Module 19 — which is the overcrowded unit where incoming inmates were supposed to quarantine for 14 days — as well as nearby Module 18 and Annex 1.

American Civil Liberties Union in Hawaii Legal Director Mateo Caballero on Thursday called on Gov. David Ige to begin releasing prisoners to reduce the number of infections. Caballero cited data compiled by The New York Times that shows 14 of the 15 largest COVID-19 clusters in the United States are in correctional facilities.

“In prison you cannot social distance, you cannot take precautions, essentially you are at the mercy of COVID,” Caballero said. “What facilities throughout the U.S. have been doing is essentially reducing their prison and jail population, because there is no other way of preventing it from spreading.”

ACLU Hawaii’s Legal Director Mateo Caballero says the only solution to reducing the spread of COVID-19 is reducing prison populations. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The efforts by the Hawaii prison system so far have been focused on holding incoming inmates in quarantine areas for 14 days to try to prevent them from importing the disease and spreading it, “but clearly, that hasn’t been sufficient,” Caballero said.

OCCC staff members blamed jail management for many of the failures that fed the pandemic inside, but also blamed crowding, the behavior of the inmates and the design of the jail itself.

“If you’re talking about isolating and quarantining, then they should be single-celled in every cell. There’s not enough cells, there’s not enough to do that,” said one staff member.

Staff argued that inmates coming in from the street should be isolated for at least two weeks — one suggested a month — but “they never did that from that gate, that’s why this is happening, and we all knew it.”

The inmates have a very limited number of masks available to them, and would routinely show up for movements within the jail without any sort of face covering.

“I tell them, ‘Where’s your mask? You can’t leave without it,'” said one staff member. “They run upstairs and borrow someone else’s one. It’s a complete shit show.”

In fact, staff said they have repeatedly seen inmates borrow masks from one another, and said that even the most disciplined corrections officers drop their own masks at times to make sure their instructions to the prisoners can be heard amid the noise of the jail.

The inmates do not simply sit in their cells all day. Espinda said Thursday that even now the entire jail is not locked down — he said it would be “inhumane” to keep the prisoners in their cells 24 hours a day — and staff described a variety of ordinary movements around the facility that may have helped spread the virus in recent weeks.

For example, under ordinary circumstances an inmate in Module 1 might be moved to Module 5, where they would be shackled before being loaded into a van for court appearances. Those in-person court appearances were suspended on Monday until at least Friday.

Even during the pandemic some lawyers have come to see their clients, in which case the inmates would be moved to Module 9 for those meetings, staff said. Inmates are also escorted to the jail medical unit for various reasons and also go to recreation areas — and corrections officers are expected to strip search the inmates after each movement from one module to another.

“Basically, you cannot social distance the inmates, and you cannot make the inmates not make contact with staff, whether it be a nurse, or an ACO stripping the bodies,” which is done in an enclosed bathroom, said one staff member.

Staff at Oahu Community Correctional Center say social distancing is not possible there. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In an effort to reduce the prison and jail populations and limit some of those risks, the state Supreme Court approved an expedited process last spring for lower-risk inmates to seek release. An estimated 650 inmates won release under that controversial program last spring, but it was opposed by state Attorney General Clare Connors and three county prosecutors.

The court ended that initiative in June after Hawaii’s infection numbers dropped, but now the state public defender’s office is trying to re-establish something akin to the release program.

If the court agrees, the inmates who would be eligible for release would include prisoners who are serving less than 18 months as a condition of probation for non-violent felonies, or awaiting trial for non-violent felonies. It would also include those that are serving time or awaiting trial for misdemeanor offenses other than domestic abuse cases.

The filing also asks the court to require that the Hawaii Paroling Authority begin processing requests for early parole for sentenced felons as well as prisoners who are older than 65 or have underlying health conditions that would put them at greater risk of severe illness or death if they are infected.

The filing by the public defender on Wednesday also asks that public health experts be admitted to each prison to review the steps that have been taken to limit the spread of the disease.

A hearing is scheduled on that request for 11 a.m. Friday, and the public can watch it live online.

The department said in a statement Thursday morning that mass testing in coordination with the state Department of Health is underway in each of OCCC’s 19 housing units, including 63 inmates who were tested Wednesday. The results of Wednesday’s tests are pending.

Up until this week, the department has only tested inmates who showed symptoms of COVID-19, or if staff had reason to believe that the prisoners have come into contact with someone with the disease.

“As the mass testing continues, we expect to see more positive cases,” Espinda said in a statement Thursday. “We appreciate how fast the DOH and National Guard are moving to coordinate the testing of identified staff and inmates.”

He added that “OCCC staff have done an amazing job following the PSD Pandemic Plan to quickly identify and quarantine these individuals. We will continue to be vigilant in our efforts to mitigate the spread of this virus.”

OCCC prison jail EIC forum Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda. 28 sept 2016
Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda said OCCC staff have been following the department’s pandemic response plan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At a press conference with Gov. David Ige on Thursday, Espinda said the procedures in the prison system follow guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health, including a “mandatory” quarantine for prisoners when they first enter the jail.

However, in response to a question from a reporter, Espinda acknowledged that the full 14-day quarantine was not always enforced because of the “grossly overcrowded conditions.”

Those conditions “required us to cut down that quarantine period towards the very end for inmates who displayed no symptoms. Again, we’re talking about overcrowded conditions that created a situation where staff was suddenly faced with very difficult decisions to be made” in connection with inmates whose histories staff would not have known, Espinda said.

The department’s Pandemic Response Plan for COVID-19 calls for facilities to “Implement Routine Intake Quarantine of new admissions to the facility for 14 days before housed with the existing population, if possible.”

Read the public defender’s petition to the state Supreme Court here:

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