Daily staff memos distributed at the Maui Community Correctional Center as recently as Sunday show that for months the standard procedure at the jail has been to isolate incoming inmates for just five days, a practice that runs contrary to state policies and federal guidance on avoiding the spread of COVID-19.

Corrections officials have said publicly the intake protocol is to isolate incoming inmates for 14 days, which is in keeping with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC advises corrections officials to “consider quarantining all new intakes for 14 days before they enter the facility’s general population.”

The state Department of Public Safety’s Pandemic Response Plan for COVID-19  says the incubation period for COVID-19 ranges from two to 14 days, and the plan instructs staff to “Implement Routine Intake Quarantine of new admissions to the facility for 14 days before housed with the existing population, if possible.”

But the daily memos distributed at MCCC show that facility is admitting inmates to the general population well before the 14 days are up.

Instead, the MCCC memos state in block letters that “ALL NEW ADMISSIONS SHOULD BE ISOLATED FOR 5 DAYS,” and instruct corrections officers to contact the medical staff if the inmates show any symptoms of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 disease.

Maui Community Correctional Center inmates pound and yell during tour in module B
Memos from Maui Community Correctional Center staff say inmates should be quarantined for five days, not the recommended 14. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The memos provide detailed daily instructions to staff at the jail. Examples that are dated April, May, July and earlier this month all give the same instructions for holding new arrivals separate from the rest of the jail population for five days.

One MCCC staff member, who discussed the issue on condition that the staffer not be identified, remarked that staff have been “asking from day one” about the five-day intake protocol.

Staff at the jail have also expressed concerns that the new inmates who are being isolated for five days are housed in separate cells in the same modules as the general population. The new arrivals have indoor recreation and TV time and take showers in the same areas as the general population, but at different times.

There have been no COVID-19 cases detected at MCCC, but the Oahu Community Correctional Center is in the midst of a major coronavirus outbreak, and Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda announced Friday that 126 inmates and 19 staff members at OCCC have tested positive so far.

Maui Community Correctional Center memos have for months instructed a five-day quarantine instead of 14 days as Department of Public Safety policy and CDC guidelines dictate. 

Espinda acknowledged at a press conference Thursday that corrections workers in some cases cut short what was supposed to be a 14-day quarantine for inmates when they were first admitted to OCCC.

That quarantine is intended to last for the two-week incubation period for COVID-19 to prevent the spread of the virus inside the facility, but Espinda said overcrowding in the unit where OCCC prisoners were isolated after they first arrived prompted jail staff to move some prisoners out into the general population early.

Toni Schwartz, public information officer for the department, said in written responses to questions about the neighbor island MCCC policy Friday that all incoming inmates “do a routine intake quarantine for up to 14 days.”

When asked about the Maui policy of five days of isolation, Schwartz said in a written statement that “each facility has situations they deal with that are unique to their facility, and the administration at those facilities takes that into consideration as they execute their plans to the best of their ability.”

Schwartz did not respond to questions asking for the length of the intake isolation periods at Hawaii Community Correctional Center on Hawaii island or the Kauai Community Correctional Center, and whether they were also reduced to less than 14 days.

She noted that Espinda explained on Thursday that the jails continue to be “grossly overcrowded,” making it very difficult to accommodate a full 14-day intake quarantine.

“The overcrowded conditions are creating a situation where staff at the facilities are faced with a very difficult decision of whether or not to cut down the intake quarantine period for inmates who have been in custody up to two weeks and display no symptoms, in order to house new intakes who they have absolutely no history on,” Espinda said at the time.

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