Gov. David Ige has appointed Hawaii Paroling Authority Chairman Edmund “Fred” Hyun to a new role as the governor’s special master overseeing the state Department of Public Safety, a troubled agency that has struggled to control and contain Hawaii’s largest infection cluster of COVID-19 inside the state’s largest jail.

Hyun steps into his new role just a week after Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda went on personal leave this month and will retire Oct. 1.

Ige said last week both Espinda and Health Director Bruce Anderson were leaving voluntarily, but pledged to address the criticisms of both departments. Ige told reporters Tuesday that Hyun will also assist with a “transition plan” that will include appointing a permanent new director for the department.

The Department of Public Safety includes the state’s Sheriff Division as well as all of the state’s prisons and jails, but it is the corrections division that has been the focus of most of the public and staff concerns in recent weeks.

A corridor in the Oahu Community Correctional Center. Fred Hyun has been tasked with investigating concerns raised by the United Public Workers and Hawaii Government Employees Association about the Department of Public Safety’s response to the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

As of Tuesday afternoon a total of 80 staff members at the jail and 291 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus, and staff said at least five corrections officers were hospitalized.

However, a spokeswoman for the department said in a statement there has been a notable decline in the number of active infections in the jail as prisoners and staff have recovered from the virus. As of Tuesday, 18 inmates at OCCC and 40 staff members were considered to have active coronavirus infections, according to the statement.

Staff at Oahu Community Correctional Center said Tuesday the new special master should quickly address ongoing problems in equipping correctional workers with personal protective equipment to try to prevent new infections.

Jail staff said they were forced to use cloth masks instead of proper protective equipment from March through August, and while some protective equipment including N95-type masks was distributed recently, it was “one size fits all.”

Staff who were being trained on the new equipment discovered the masks were too large to fit the faces of some female workers, and too small for some of the larger male staff members, said Liz Ho, administrator of the United Public Workers union that represents much of the corrections staff.

Hawaii Paroling Authority Chairman Edmund “Fred” Hyun will serve as the governor’s special master overseeing the state Department of Public Safety. Courtesy: Governor's Office

As a result, some OCCC employees continue to wear cloth masks because they do not have equipment that fits properly, according to staff who agreed to be interviewed on condition that they are not identified.

Ige told reporters Tuesday that Hyun and acting Public Safety Director Maria Cook “are looking at comments made about PPE, and I know personally that we delivered tens of thousands of personal protective equipment to every single one of the jail and correctional facilities across the state, so clearly that would be one of the top priorities.”

Hyun will continue in his role as chairman of the Paroling Authority, but will function as special master through the month of September, according to a statement from Ige’s office.

“Managing our overcrowded, aging, chronically understaffed correctional facilities is one of the toughest jobs in the state,” Ige said in a statement announcing Hyun’s appointment. “The COVID-19 pandemic makes the job even more difficult. I have directed Fred to conduct a top-to-bottom assessment of the Department of Public Safety and to work with Deputy Director Maria Cook to implement any needed changes to enable it to operate more effectively.”

In addition to assessing the operations of the administration, corrections and law enforcement divisions, Hyun is specifically tasked with investigating the concerns raised by UPW and the Hawaii Government Employees Association about the department’s COVID-19 response, Ige said in his announcement.

Hyun will also make recommendations and prioritize potential mitigation measures, according to the statement.

Hyun worked as a youth corrections officer at Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, and started the first halfway house for committed wards. He also served as a supervisor with the Oahu Intake Service Center, and became the Intake Service Center manager until his retirement from the Department of Public Safety in 2003.

After retirement from his state jobs, Hyun worked in private security and for the Honolulu Liquor Commission.

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