Even as inmates are winning early release from the Oahu Community Correctional Center under special orders by the Hawaii Supreme Court, an estimated 20 new prisoners per day are being admitted to the overcrowded jail, which is now the scene of the largest COVID-19 infection cluster in the state.

Corrections officials have designated two modules at OCCC to isolate incoming inmates for 14 days to prevent further spread of the disease within the jail, but former state Department of Public Safety Director Ted Sakai warned at a public meeting Thursday that “you’re going to run out of space in quarantine real fast.”

Shari Kimoto, deputy director for corrections, said the department is “very aware” of that, adding that Module 17 is near capacity. That is one of the two being used to isolate the newcomers. She said jail staff are preparing to empty out a third module so it can also be used to quarantine newly arrived prisoners.

Oahu Community Corrections Center OCCC intake office.
Modules used to quarantine prisoners for COVID-19 are nearing capacity at Oahu Community Correctional Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Some of the first positive test results in the OCCC outbreak were among inmates and staff in Module 19, which is the other module being used to isolate newly admitted inmates. But corrections officials have said some newcomers were released from intake isolation before their 14 days were up because of jail overcrowding.

Now COVID-19 is raging within the facility, with the department reporting Thursday that 239 inmates and 42 staff members at OCCC have tested positive so far. At least one corrections officer who worked in Module 19 has been hospitalized, according to jail staff, and more positive test results are expected as mass testing continues in all 19 of the living areas of the jail.

Former Circuit Judge Michael Town, who is a member of the state Corrections Management Oversight Commission, described the situation Thursday as “a matter of life or death for our prisoners,” as well as the adult correctional officers. He said their families are concerned.

“I really feel like people are going to get sick, we’re going to end up in a San Quentin-type situation, and we knew this day was coming,” Town said. California’s San Quentin State Prison has had more than 2,200 COVID-19 cases and two dozen deaths among inmates there.

“I’m tired of hearing the violin played while Rome is burning.” — Former Judge Michael Town

Martha Torney, a commission member who served as deputy director of administration for the Department of Public Safety during Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s administration, said her patience has run out.

“I have no more patience,” she said, adding that social distancing is impossible in the living units of the jail, which is where inmates spend most of their time.

“We know people are getting sick. They cannot separate the inmates,” she said. “Unless there is true assistance from the outside to reduce the number of admissions and to speed up releases, we’re going to have 1,000 sick people on our hands.”

Commission members also said they are angry that the corrections system failed to do more to move minor offenders out of jail and into community settings where they could get mental health care, drug treatment or services to help the homeless — steps the department was supposed to be taking all along.

“(Public Safety) has a serious responsibility in assisting those people,” said Torney. “I apologize for my anger and my frustration, but I’m fed up with this.”

Town said the department can use its own discretion to help reduce the jail population.

“They have ample discretion, and they know it, so I’m tired of hearing the violin played while Rome is burning,” he said.

There is growing concern the COVID-19 outbreak at OCCC will lead to deaths of inmates or guards. 

Sakai acknowledged the department could have done more to help reduce the population of minor offenders in jail, but said the department needs help with that task from social service and housing agencies as well as mental health providers.

Given the situation now, Sakai said he is “very, very concerned” COVID-19 will quickly spread in the overcrowded neighbor island jails, including Maui Community Correctional Center and Hawaii Community Correctional Center. The Maui jail also has been unable to isolate incoming inmates for 14 days, which increases the potential for infections.

Particularly at HCCC in Hilo, “If you get one infection in there, I don’t see how they stop it from spreading throughout the population,” Sakai said.

The inmate population at OCCC needs to be significantly reduced, and the state also has to “kind of stop the bleeding” by somehow slowing down the number of prisoners who are being admitted to the facility. “They can’t quarantine the new inmates coming in effectively,” Sakai said.

The state Supreme Court intervened this week to 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 by setting up an expedited review and release process for non-violent felony offenders who are serving less than 18 months in jail, or are awaiting trial or sentencing.

Prosecutors were to file objections to those releases in felony cases by Wednesday and Thursday, which are then considered by the judges who handled those cases.  The judges have until Monday to make decisions in most instances.

Inmates cannot be released under the Supreme Court orders if the prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, or if they are awaiting the results of a test. Once released, the inmates are required to self-isolate for 14 days.

Attorney Eric Seitz representing the Haleck family walks out of District Court after jury verdict.
Attorney Eric Seitz is preparing to file a class-action lawsuit. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

So far, the court orders do not appear to be prompting a flood of releases. The Department of Public Safety has made public a list of five inmates who were released earlier this week, and another list of 23 more who were released on Wednesday.

Corrections officials have also placed an order for new isolation cells so that ill inmates can be separated from the rest of the population, and are setting up tents in the OCCC recreation yard to create more room to separate groups of inmates from one another.

However, Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda has said the dozen medical isolation cells are not expected to be delivered until October. Kimoto told the commission that “clearly we should have probably had those cells on order way before,” but the department only recently learned that it would receive the federal grant that will be used to pay for the cells.

Honolulu lawyer Eric Seitz told the commission the situation inside the jail is a “major catastrophe,” and he is preparing a class-action lawsuit that would be filed in federal court asking that a special master be appointed to take control of OCCC, and possibly other portions of the correctional system.

In a letter to state Attorney Clare Connors this week, Seitz said he has received calls from inmates, corrections officers and family members who report — among other concerns — that masks are not provided by the department or worn regularly, and that staff are calling in sick or taking leave to avoid infection.

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