Module 19 at the Oahu Community Correctional Center has been functioning as the coronavirus isolation unit, a portion of the sprawling Kalihi jail where inmates are supposed to be held for 14 days before they can join the general population. It is those prisoners in that module who are deemed most likely to bring COVID-19 into the crowded jail, where it could spread like wildfire.

Yet staff who are familiar with operations in Module 19 describe apparent lapses in the protocols that are supposed to keep the pandemic out, such as inmates who were released to the general population before their 14 days were up, and one occasion where work line inmates were seen strolling around the module without masks covering their faces.

“You’ve got to (expletive) tell them to put on their damn masks,” said one jail staff member. Those same work line inmates are responsible for preparing and delivering food to the other prisoners in the air conditioned module.

Civil Beat interviewed a number of jail staff members about the situation in correctional facilities as reports of confirmed infections increase, allowing them to speak anonymously because they fear retaliation and the information would not have been shared otherwise.

Four staffers who work in OCCC said jail employees are becoming increasingly alarmed as the virus, which was first detected in an inmate at Module 19, has spread. Staff said one of the other inmates who tested positive was being held in an open, barracks-type housing unit known as Annex 1 until he was tested.

Oahu Community Corrections Center OCCC module door.
Oahu Community Corrections Center staff say employees are worried as the virus spreads that precautions are not being taken and safety protocols not enforced. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The state Department of Public Safety in the past week disclosed that three adult corrections officers and six inmates have tested positive for coronavirus at OCCC, but the department does not specify where in the jail the inmates were housed, or exactly where the corrections officers worked.

Reports posted online by the department show that as of Monday, 54 OCCC inmates have been tested, six tested positive, and two inmate tests are pending. The positive test results have prompted jail officials to place 364 prisoners in quarantine at OCCC, and 11 more are in medical isolation. The jail held 837 male inmates and 101 females as of Aug. 3.

The jail on Monday stopped transporting inmates to court appearances until at least Wednesday as a precaution that is part of the public safety department’s pandemic plan for correctional facilities, according to the department. Video hearings will take place “to the extent possible and as legally permissible.”

“I commend our staff for taking swift action, with the assistance of the Department of Health, as they make every effort to mitigate the spread of this COVID-19 cluster that has formed at OCCC,” said Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda in a written statement issued Monday.

“What is important to note is that the facility implemented the PSD Pandemic Plan to identify the cluster quickly and lock down movement. We are working with DOH on staff and inmate testing, and we are implementing immediate disinfecting/sanitizing measures in the housing and intake areas of OCCC,” Espinda said in a statement.

The announcements by the department that a total of six prison and jail staff have tested positive at OCCC, Halawa Correctional Facility and Waiawa Correctional Facility in the past week underscore complaints made by corrections staffers in recent weeks that they are not being supplied with proper personal protective equipment.

Staff is now being required to wear masks, but the two masks issued to each staffer by the department last spring are “flimsy,” and the department is not providing hand sanitizer, according to one corrections worker.

Another problem is that aging furniture in the modules is not being regularly sanitized, according to the staff member.

“You go to Safeway and they’re wiping every cart down, they’re spraying all these chemicals — they have yet to do that at the jail, anywhere,” said the staffer. “They have not sanitized or wiped seats down or any kind of thing, they just don’t.”

Espinda said in his statement Monday that OCCC is now contracting with a professional cleaning and sanitation company to perform a deep-clean of the quarantine housing and intake areas at the jail “as soon as possible.”

In the meantime, OCCC operations staff and work lines are increasing the cleaning of all housing and intake areas, he said.

Director Public Safety Nolan Espinda and Gov David Ige announcing a new $525 million OCCC replacement in Halawa on the site of the animal quarantine area.
Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda says the department has stepped up cleaning and sanitizing measures in jails and prisons as it deals with a cluster of positive tests at OCCC and other confirmed cases in other facilities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Communication is another concern, with one jail staffer saying he first learned through the corrections grapevine that an inmate had tested positive in a unit where the staff member had worked. Another staffer learned of the first positive test of an inmate from the news media.

“They’re not telling us what’s going on, that’s been one of the problems,” said another corrections worker. “We’re all wearing our masks, we’re all keeping our hands clean, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be safe. We don’t have eye protection, we don’t have face shields, we don’t have all that.”

Staff also reported at least some prisoners have been placed in the general population at OCCC before their entire 14-day holding period in Module 19 was finished, apparently because the module was full. Most of the inmates in Module 19 are housed in two-man cells, with some crammed into cells that hold three inmates.

Public safety officials did not directly address that concern Monday.

Liz Ho, administrator for the United Public Workers union that includes corrections officers, said she has been hearing the same complaints from corrections officers, and said she does not believe the Department of Public Safety has done enough to protect the staff and prevent infections.

Ho said she spoke with Gov. David Ige on Monday morning to “express my concern for our members at OCCC and all of the facilities, because we just don’t know where it can come up again.”

Ho said hazard pay for UPW members is another issue that was raised with Ige, who said he would discuss that matter with the state Department of Human Resources Development. Another issue is reimbursements for staff who decide on their own to be tested for COVID-19, and Ho urged members to contact their business agent if they are seeking testing reimbursement.

Espinda said in his statement that the Department of Health is organizing testing of OCCC staff and inmates who may have been exposed to the virus cluster at OCCC. The National Guard was on site Monday to perform testing, and corrections staff were tested in Modules 18 and 19, and in Annex 1.

Public safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz did not respond directly to questions about the issues raised by staff, but provided a general statement that the department “follows the national standards and guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” and the state health department.

“New intakes are screened for symptoms per established protocols and placed in a new inmate intake quarantine,” following procedures that are detailed in the PSD COVID-19 pandemic plan, according to the statement.

Corrections staff says the facilities are short on personal protective equipment. Prison officials say the department is following national and state guidelines. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

All facilities have been issued personal protective equipment and keep an inventory of that equipment, she said in the statement. “Staff are practicing recommended precautions for the health and safety of the public, our staff and the inmates under our supervision including the use of proper PPE.”

Hawaii Public Defender James Tabe said Sunday night that his office plans to file a new request to the Hawaii Supreme Court to take steps to reduce the inmate population to allow for social distancing and help slow the spread of COVID-19 in state correctional facilities.

In April the court created an expedited process for releasing low-risk inmates in response to a filing by Tabe’s office, but that initiative has expired, and the prison and jail populations have been increasing since then.

When asked about that initiative, Schwartz said in a written statement that “we support any and all efforts made to safely reduce the inmate population, not only to prevent the spread of disease, but also to alleviate the extreme overcrowding our facilities have been experiencing for decades.”

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author