The state’s largest jail was the scene of small fires and broken light fixtures this weekend as inmates become increasingly disgruntled over restrictions that prison officials have put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Part of the aggravation has come from delayed meals at Oahu Community Correctional Center. The kitchen staff was severely shorthanded after some food service workers tested positive for the virus.

Fires were started in a disciplinary unit on Saturday and another fire was set on Sunday in a jail module where inmates with physical disabilities are housed, according to jail staff.

Oahu Community Correctional Center was the scene of small fires and broken light fixtures this weekend.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Staff said both incidents appear to be linked to disgruntled inmates who have been locked down in their cells far more than normal due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions.

COVID-19 has created a tremendous amount of strain on our overcrowded facilities,” Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in a statement. “Quarantine lockdowns, and cramped conditions, combined with the stress of the COVID-19 outbreak at OCCC translates to inmates becoming restless and agitated.”

Late Sunday the state Supreme Court issued an order to release certain misdemeanor inmates and misdemeanor defendants.

“This court recognizes the impact of COVID-19 on Hawaiʻi’s community correctional centers and facilities — and the urgency by which suitable yet balanced action is required,” the ruling states. “The COVID-19 outbreak at OCCC, where appropriate physical distancing is not possible, has the potential to not only place the inmates at risk of death or serious illness, but also endanger the lives and well-being of staff and service providers who work at OCCC, their families, and members of the community at large.”

The department announced Sunday that mass testing in the jail confirmed that an additional four prisoners have COVID-19, bringing the totals to 170 inmates and 30 staff at the jail who have been infected. Movements of inmates to court appearances have been suspended until at least next Friday.

The jail held 968 men and women inmates in 19 separate living units as of last Friday.

Schwartz confirmed the fire on Saturday, which was started after lunch was served “an hour late,” adding that “inmates became upset and attempted to start a small fire but it was quickly extinguished.”

She said in a second statement that “they did attempt to start a second fire but were unsuccessful. Once meals were served, calm quickly resumed. There was no damage, injuries, or escalation evident.”

Schwartz said the situation was contained quickly with no injuries to inmates or staff and no damage to the unit.

“Food service is back on track and dinner is being served to inmates on time,” she said of the Saturday incidents, which jail staff said took place in a “special holding” or disciplinary unit.

“All staff on duty are to be commended for effectively and professionally keeping the situation under control during these trying times.” Schwartz said of the Saturday incidents.

Jail staff who are familiar with the disturbances said the incident on Sunday occurred after four general population prisoners were moved to Module 2, a relatively small living unit that is generally reserved for inmates with physical ailments or disabilities.

Inmates who were reportedly unhappy with the new arrangement broke light fixtures, smashed a computer and set a fire. About 40 prisoners from the module had to be moved to an outdoor recreation yard to prevent injuries from smoke inhalation, said the staff members who spoke on condition that they not be identified. One inmate suffered a cut, but no one needed to be hospitalized, staff said.

Schwartz said in a statement on Sunday that “inmates upset with the quarantine lockdowns created another situation today by setting a small fire in a common area of a housing module, which staff quickly put out. There was no damage caused by the fire. Two inmates damaged a toilet and a lighting fixture. They are being evaluated for minor injuries sustained as a result of breaking the items. An ACO had some minor eye irritation from the fire extinguisher gas.”

Schwartz said the 40 inmates in the module “have been temporarily relocated to an outside recreation area while the damage is assessed and cleaned up.”

The situation is under investigation and inmates found culpable will be criminally and administratively charged,” she said. 

Crews from the state Department of Health and the Hawaii National Guard were scheduled to continue testing for COVID-19 inside the jail on Sunday, but it was unclear if they would be able to enter the facility to work.

The state Supreme Court on Friday heard arguments on a request filed by the Hawaii Office of the Public Defender that the state re-establish an expedited process for releasing lower-risk inmates in the state correctional system to reduce the spread of infection.

Inmates who would be eligible for release 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 who are serving time or awaiting trial for misdemeanor offenses other than domestic abuse cases.

The filing also asked the court to require 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 terminated the process in June after the number of infections dropped statewide. An estimated 650 inmates won early release under that early release program last spring, which was opposed by state Attorney General Clare Connors and three county prosecutors.

Read the state Supreme Court’s order below.

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