The state’s largest jail failed to immediately separate inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 from prisoners in the same dormitory who were uninfected, and released at least one inmate who had recently tested positive for the virus despite efforts by the staff to block the release, according to a whistleblower sergeant at the jail who went public Sunday night.

Lana Hughes, a longtime corrections officer and sergeant at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, said in an online interview Sunday night that on Aug. 13 shortly after mass testing revealed that 65 prisoners in the Annex 1 housing unit where she worked were infected, Hughes noticed that one of them was scheduled for release.

“He was on the list, and he got released, so now he’s out in the public, out in the community right now,” said Hughes, who sat for an interview Sunday in an informal online talk show hosted by Kauai residents Charlie Iona and Mel Rapozo. “We alerted Module 5, but I don’t know what happened, and they went through” with the release.

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center Dillingham side.
An Oahu Community Correctional Center sergeant is speaking publicly about the release of a prisoner who tested positive for COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hughes did not name the inmate, and the release on Aug. 13 took place before the state Supreme Court re-established an expedited release program to try to reduce the population at OCCC to curb the spread of infections inside the jail.

She said she has no way of knowing if the inmate had a place to go to quarantine for 14 days.

“Intake services would know all that, I just don’t have that information,” Hughes said.

She said she also has no way of knowing if anyone who might have picked up the inmate at the jail would have been informed that he was infected with the virus.

Since then, corrections officials have announced that 242 inmates and 43 staff members at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. OCCC is now the site of the largest Hawaii infection cluster of the pandemic, and Hughes and other corrections staff said five corrections officers have been hospitalized with the disease thus far.

A social media posting promoted the interview with OCCC Sgt. Lana Hughes. Screenshot/2020

Hughes said OCCC did not immediately separate the infected inmates in Annex 1 from those who were not infected. Hughes later took a test herself, and she also tested positive on Aug. 19. She is currently in isolation, and is separated from her 11-year-old son, she told her interviewers.

The state Supreme Court issued two rulings last week to reduce the OCCC population by ordering the release of prisoners who were being held there for non-violent misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor offenses. The court also established an expedited release process for non-violent felony offenders who are serving less than 18 months in jail, or are awaiting trial or sentencing.

The court orders do not allow for the release of inmates who test positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results.

Corrections officials reported that five inmates were released earlier this week under the expedited processes set up by the court. Another 23 were released on Wednesday, 25 were released Thursday, 11 were released Friday, and 31 were released Saturday, according to records released by the department.

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