Citing “escalating unrest and unsafe conditions” at the state’s largest jail, the union that represents Hawaii corrections officers urged Gov. David Ige on Tuesday to force Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda to resign from his role overseeing all state prisons and jails.

The Oahu Community Correctional Center has emerged as the scene of the largest COVID-19 infection cluster in the state, and officers have been warning for weeks of serious problems such as a lack of personal protective equipment for staff, and unsafe conditions for uninfected inmates who in some cases are housed in the same dormitories as prisoners who have the disease.

“We’ve been calling for more PPE, more testing and more realistic options for battling overcrowding. But we are no closer to getting this virus under control,” said United Public Workers administrator Liz Ho.

The UPW/AFSCME Local 646 represents over 13,000 public and private sector workers.

Director Public Safety Nolan Espinda in presser with Governor Ige.
Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda, left, was appointed by Gov. David Ige. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“This is unconscionable. This is about the safety of workers and inmates – as well as the safety of the entire community. Under Espinda, the situation only promises to get worse,” said Ho in a written statement Tuesday afternoon.

“It is time for Governor Ige to take action and remove Director Espinda and put competent leadership in place at DPS,” Ho said.

Shortly after the UPW announcement, the Hawaii Government Employees Association also called for “an immediate leadership change” at the Department of Public Safety.

“Our members have lost faith in the leadership of PSD and the Department of Health,” said HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira in a written statement Tuesday. “For months we have been going through proper channels asking for clear, practical guidance on basic health and safety questions and standard operating procedures related to COVID-19 positive cases, and yet to this day, only vague generalities and Department of Health and CDC guidelines have been provided.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, 242 inmates and 51 staff at OCCC have tested positive for COVID-19. The jail was holding 864 male and 109 female inmates as of Aug. 17.

The department also announced Tuesday an additional staff member at the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua had tested positive, bringing the total number of people infected there to two staff members and no inmates.

OCCC was the scene of inmate disturbances on Aug. 15 and 16, and corrections officers have reported being required to work 24-hour shifts in many cases to cover for staff who are ill or isolating with COVID-19. Other staff have said they called in sick or refused to go to work to avoid becoming infected themselves.

Last week the state began releasing lower-risk prisoners under an expedited release program established by the state Supreme Court in an attempt to reduce the inmate population at the chronically overcrowded facility.

In her letter to Ige, Ho said OCCC “has become the epicenter of a revolving COVID-19 cluster, putting many lives at risk, including DPS employees, their families and those in the communities they live in.” State Department of Health officials say they have traced some community infections back to inmates who were released from the jail.

A resurgence of the coronavirus later this year remains a threat, and there must be accountability now for these documented failures,” Ho wrote. She urged Ige to “appoint a more competent and compassionate leader who can fully grasp the situation and lead by example.”

The action by UPW is an abrupt turnaround for the union leadership. Last year UPW State Director Dayton Nakanelua was a strong supporter of Espinda during a contentious state Senate confirmation process for the public safety director. The Senate finally approved  Espinda in a 17-8 vote, but some lawmakers expressed strong concerns about his leadership.

Nakanelua was removed as UPW state director earlier this year after an audit found poor oversight and record keeping of spending by union officials. Ho was then appointed union administrator.

There was no immediate response to Ho’s letter from Ige’s office Tuesday.

The Department of Public Safety issued a statement saying it “will continue to engage in on-going discussions with UPW to resolve concerns expressed by our employees. Together, we will navigate through the unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic impacting our state and facilities.”

HGEA is the state’s largest labor union, and Perreira in his statement called for safety protocol improvements at OCCC, the Honolulu District Court cellblock, the Hawaii Paroling Authority and at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

“It is outrageous that frontline workers in correctional institutions, the cellblock, Hawaii Paroling Authority and at our international airport are not properly fitted with N95 face masks, don’t have clear safety protocols, and are not properly notified when there is a positive case in their facilities,” said Perreira. “Continued attempts to communicate with the administration have failed and with COVID-19 surging on Oahu, people’s lives are at stake.”

He said HGEA is preparing a class action grievance on behalf of the affected employees, and urged Ige to make changes.

“At this point, given the failed response by the department to protect the well-being of its employees and inmates in their charge, we are calling upon the governor and state leadership to take prompt action to address these concerns in the interest of the health and safety of our entire community,” according to the HGEA statement.

Perreira also said the union has been hearing reports that the department has been denying employee requests to telework.

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