The state’s largest jail is still unable to separate all of the prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 from those who didn’t, and jail officials have released at least some inmates back into the community who went on to cause infections after they were turned loose, according to staff with the state Department of Health and Department of Public Safety.

Sarah Kemble, deputy state epidemiologist for the Department of Health, told members of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission Monday it has been “a challenge” to ensure that inmates released from the Oahu Community Correctional Center have appropriate and safe places to go to wait out their 14-day quarantine.

“There is still the issue of, OK, they’ve served their term within the jail, but where are they going to go and avoid causing new outbreaks?” Kemble told the commission. She said some of the community settings where the former inmates often end up “still don’t feel adequately prepared or equipped to handle isolation and quarantine.”

“Many people, as we’re seeing, are going on to other congregate settings, be it a shelter, a halfway house program, recovery program, and we have already seen some spillover into those settings because of people who left while incubating before the scope of the outbreak was defined, and they have led to some additional transmission in other settings.”

Dr. Sarah Kemble, state Department of Health’s deputy state epidemiologist, said inmate releases have led to “some additional transmission in other settings.” Eleni Avendaño/Civil Beat/2020

She did not describe where those community infections occurred, and the commissioners did not ask for that information during the online hearing Monday.

However, there have been reports of COVID-19 outbreaks in at least one Honolulu halfway house, and the homeless shelter Institute for Human Services has also been coping with an outbreak this month. It is not known if that IHS cluster is linked in any way to a former OCCC inmate.

“That is the key concern, if we want to avoid having this cause new pockets of transmission community wide in these types of congregate settings,” Kemble said. “So, that’s been sort of the logic behind trying to figure out a system to limit those releases as legally acceptable, or find a way to slow down that process or have enough advance notice to make some preparations for those releases.”

So far 242 inmates and 43 staff at OCCC have tested positive for COVID-19 in what has become the largest infection cluster in the state. Kemble said she is aware of one inmate and three jail staff members who have been hospitalized with the disease, but OCCC staff say five corrections officers have been hospitalized so far.

Staff from the health department and the Hawaii National Guard have finished testing all of the inmates who were willing to be tested, and a second round of testing is underway, according to public safety officials.

OCCC was holding 864 male and 109 female inmates as of Aug. 17, and Kemble described some of the challenges that jail and public health officials have faced in trying to keep inmates who are infected separated from those who are not.

One problem has been that rival gangs within the jail can make it dangerous for some inmates to be placed in some housing units, she said. Another issue is that in some parts of the jail, inmates share bathrooms and dining areas, she said.

Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Oahu Community Correctional Center has seen 242 inmates and 43 staff test positive for coronavirus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

It’s not an environment where groups of inmates can be easily separated from each other, Kemble said. To create extra space, jail officials are trying to set up tents on a recreation field, and have ordered commercial isolation cells that are scheduled to be delivered in October.

The state Supreme Court issued two rulings last week to try to rapidly reduce the inmate population at OCCC. One ruling ordered the release of prisoners who were being held there for nonviolent misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor offenses, and another established an expedited release process for nonviolent felony offenders who are serving less than 18 months in jail, or are awaiting trial or sentencing.

Public safety officials have released 95 OCCC inmates under that expedited program so far, but have also released an unknown number of other prisoners as those inmates posted bail or completed their sentences.

The court on Monday issued a new order expanding the expedited release program to Maui Community Correctional Center, Kauai Community Correctional Center and Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo.

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