The outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the state corrections system continued to expand Sunday as the state Department of Public Safety announced two more inmates and three more staff members have tested positive at Oahu Community Correctional Center, prompting the department to suspend all inmate movements to court on Oahu on Monday.
Those cases bring the total count for the state system in the past week to six inmates and six staff members at three facilities, with most of the cases concentrated at OCCC.
Hawaii Public Defender James Tabe said Sunday night that his office is working on 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 the disease.
In April the court created a controversial expedited process for releasing low-risk inmates in response to a filing by Tabe’s office, but that initiative has expired.
“This is exactly what we were afraid of, and that’s why we filed the petition in the first place,” Tabe said of the recent infections at OCCC. “There’s no social distancing that could be practiced there unless we reduce the prison population or the jail population.”
Corrections officials announced Friday that an inmate who was taken to OCCC on Monday had tested positive for the new coronavirus, which marked the first time state corrections officials had detected the disease in Hawaii’s inmate population.
Since then, public safety officials announced in written statements Friday, Saturday and Sunday that three corrections officers have tested positive at OCCC, and five additional inmates tested positive there. OCCC is the state’s largest jail, with 837 male prisoners and 101 women held there as of Aug. 3.
The department also disclosed that an adult corrections officer who works at the medium-security Halawa Correctional Facility received a positive test result on Thursday. Halawa is the state’s largest prison with 790 male inmates in custody there as of Aug. 3.
Two other corrections officers who work at the minimum security Waiawa Correctional Facility also tested positive on Tuesday and Thursday, according to the public safety department.
At least one of the inmates who tested positive at OCCC was being housed in a module reserved for incoming inmates who are kept separate from the general population for 14 days after they are admitted to the jail as part of the effort to keep the disease from spreading inside. At least one of the corrections officers who tested positive also worked in that module, staff said.
Public safety officials said in a statement Sunday that “the facilities have longstanding outbreak management plans in place to quickly identify, isolate and treat communicable diseases.”
The decision to suspend in-person court appearances on Oahu was made as part of the department’s pandemic plan for correctional facilities, according to the department.
The department “will be in constant contact with the Judiciary going forward to assure the safety of all staff and inmates involved,” according to a statement from the department.
The coronavirus has infected thousands of inmates in prisons and jails across the mainland, and the state Supreme Court in April set up an expedited process for low-risk inmates to seek release in an effort to head off widespread infections in the overcrowded Hawaii facilities.
Tabe has repeatedly warned that a major outbreak in state jails and prisons will quickly affect the larger public because seriously ill inmates would end up hospitalized, creating an additional burden on the health care system in Hawaii.
More than 800 Hawaii prisoners were released from March to May, many released through the expedited process established by the Supreme Court in response to Tabe’s request. But that initiative prompted resistance from state Attorney General Clare Connors and three county prosecutors who warned the releases were endangering public safety.
The Supreme Court court lifted its order in June after infection rates in Hawaii dropped significantly, but Tabe said his office will now either seek to have the process reinstated, or have something else put in its place to reduce the inmate population.
“We’ll see what the Supreme Court wants. Our goal is to try to get the prison population down and to keep the inmates, and the guards as well, safe,” Tabe said.
He declined to say exactly what sort of request his office will make or when it will be filed, but said it will be filed with the court “sooner than later.”
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