Frustrated corrections workers at the state’s largest jail say the number of COVID-19 cases inside the facility is climbing again, at least in part because incoming inmates are still not being isolated for 14 days before they are released into the general population.

In the last seven days, 41 inmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Staff at the OCCC said that as of Wednesday 15 inmates had tested positive for the virus in a dormitory known as Annex II, where as many as 150 prisoners at a time are housed in bunks in open rooms on three floors.

Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Nearly 100 workers and 382 inmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19 since August. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

While illnesses among the staff declined after workers were issued N95 masks and other personal protective gear, the inmates continue to use cloth masks, and are moved around the facility in ways that appear to risk spreading the disease again, staff said.

Civil Beat agreed to let staff members speak anonymously because they fear retaliation and would not have shared the information otherwise.

Module 19 has been used as the quarantine module for newly admitted prisoners, but the inmates are still not strictly segregated into cohort groups to limit the spread of the virus, staff said.

Instead, as the module fills up the inmates are moved around within the module or are moved out of the module to make room, increasing the chances that anyone who is infected will pass the virus on to others, according to jail staff.

“Everybody that’s coming in is supposed to be quarantined, but because there’s no room, they always get mixed up or there’s a fight or whatever, or a backup, which causes change — a gang member thing, whatever,” one staffer said. When that happens, inmates are then moved from one part of the module to another, or out of the module into another part of the jail.

Oahu Community Corrections Center OCCC wide
Staff at the Oahu Community Correctional Center say the number of coronavirus infections has been increasing, in part because some inmates are not properly isolated for 14 days when they are first admitted. Corrections officials say the situation is under control. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety, said in a written response to questions that “the OCCC administration says no inmate housed in the new intake quarantine living unit can be moved out of quarantine status before 14 days lapses. After 14 days lapses, a medical review will be made to determine if an inmate is clear to move out of the quarantine living unit.”

The department announced Wednesday that 15 additional OCCC inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus, 19 more tested positive Thursday, two more inmate tests came back positive on Friday and five were confirmed on Saturday.

However, Schwartz said that “we expect these small pockets of positive cases to happen within a transient jail population. That is why the testing (with Department of Health assistance) is continuous, so we can catch it and quickly contain it.”

Former director of the Department of Public Safety Nolan Espinda acknowledged in August that incoming inmates were not always isolated for 14 days, and in fact staff at the Maui Community Correctional Center were specifically instructed to isolate newly arrived prisoners for only five days.

The department’s Pandemic Response Plan for COVID-19 instructs staff to “Implement Routine Intake Quarantine of new admissions to the facility for 14 days before housed with the existing population, if possible.”

To make that possible, staff have argued that OCCC should erect tents in the yard at OCCC to make room so that newly arrived prisoners can be isolated for the full incubation period of the virus. Espinda said in August that tents would be put up and modular quarantine facilities had been ordered, but OCCC staff said there are still no tents or modular holding areas.

Espinda has since retired from the department, and Gov. David Ige announced Thursday he has appointed Edmund “Fred” Hyun to serve as the temporary acting director from Oct. 1 through Nov. 30.

Schwartz said in a written statement that “the situation at OCCC has been addressed.”

“The vast majority of all OCCC inmates who tested positive have recovered. No inmates are in the hospital. 75% of OCCC staff who reported positive cases have fully recovered and returned to work,” she said.

The jail is now undergoing its seventh round of testing and the health department “has assured PSD they will continue testing as long as it takes, to watch for new cases and mitigate spread.”

In all, 97 staff members at OCCC have tested positive for COVID-19, and 74 have recovered. As of Saturday, a total of 382 inmates at OCCC had tested positive. There are 70 inmates in medical isolation and 310 have recovered from the virus, according to the department.

The jail held a total of 776 men and women prisoners as of Sept. 21.

Honolulu Attorney Eric Seitz filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court over the treatment of both inmates and staff during the pandemic. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Last week the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and the Hawaii Disability Rights Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the state Supreme Court urging the court to order humanitarian releases from state jails and prisons given the recent outbreaks of COVID-19.

The brief described the state’s response to COVID-19 in the correctional system as “utterly abysmal,” arguing the treatment of inmates in the pandemic amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. It also contends the state is illegally discriminating against people with disabilities under federal disability rights laws.

The filing seeks releases of inmates who are medically vulnerable or have disabilities, and urges the court to set population targets in the jails and prisons to lower the inmate census and help prevent the spread of the virus. It also urges to court to appoint an independent public health expert, to require the state to do more to support inmates who are released, and to expand testing for COVID-19 in correctional facilities.

The state Supreme Court issued two rulings in August to try to rapidly reduce the inmate population at OCCC. One ruling ordered the release of prisoners who were being held there for nonviolent misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor offenses, and another established an expedited release process for nonviolent felony offenders who are serving less than 18 months in jail, or are awaiting trial or sentencing.

Honolulu lawyer Eric Seitz has also filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of the inmates and corrections staff, alleging “unconstitutional and disgraceful treatment” of inmates and staff exposed to, or diagnosed with COVID-19.

However, Schwartz said mass testing at prisons and jails so far has shown that facilities other than OCCC are almost entirely free of the coronavirus.

“This is all to the credit of the wardens, their security staff, medical and mental health teams and their civilian staff who continue to execute their pandemic plans daily,” according to the department.

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