Of 110 jail inmates who were tested for COVID-19 earlier this week at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, 70 turned out to have the disease in exactly the kind of outbreak inside correctional facilities that advocates have feared.

A statement released Thursday morning by the state Department of Public Safety revealed that seven additional adult correctional officers also tested positive, bringing the totals to 86 inmates and 14 staff members who have tested positive at the state’s largest jail so far.

However, hours later the state Health Department released conflicting data that suggest the OCCC cluster may be even larger than corrections officials have reported. Health officials announced there were 86 new diagnosed cases of coronavirus Thursday at OCCC.

“Health investigators say at least 116 cases are attributable to OCCC, with 24 staff and 92 inmates having tested positive for COVID-19,” according to a statement from the Health Department.

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center Dillingham side.
There has been a COVID-19 outbreak at Oahu Community Correctional Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Hawaii Office of the Public Defender on Wednesday filed a new 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.

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 court approved a similar process for expedited release of lower-risk prisoners in April, but ended that initiative in June after Hawaii’s infection numbers dropped. An estimated 650 inmates won early release under that controversial early release program last spring, which was opposed by state Attorney General Clare Connors and three county prosecutors.

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.

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 State 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.”

The efforts by the Hawaii prison system so far have been focused 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.

Staff said mass testing was done on Tuesday at a portion of the facility called Annex 1, where more than 100 inmates are housed at a time in dormitory-style sleeping arrangements. Staff from that portion of the jail were also tested.

A prison guard, seen here in 2015, walks through Annex 1 at Oahu Community Correctional Center. Mass COVID-19 testing was done at the state’s largest prison. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

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.

“As the mass testing continues, we expect to see more positive cases,” Public Safety Director Nolan 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.”

Up until this point, 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.

The jail held 837 male inmates and 101 females as of Aug. 3.

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