The state’s prison oversight commission needs to investigate the COVID-19 situation at the Maui Community Correctional Center where jail officials have been coping with a coronavirus outbreak since Feb. 1, a community activist organization urged at a hearing Thursday.

Sarah Hofstadter, a member of the steering team for Hale Hawaii, told the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission that COVID-19 at MCCC “is a serious issue.”

She cited published reports that the so-called California variant, or B.1.429 variant of COVID-19, has been detected among the inmates at MCCC.

“It’s not only an issue for the people at the facility — inmates and staff — but also for the community as a whole because of the frequency with which people go in and out of the jail,” she told the commission. “If there’s a bad outbreak at the jail, it’s going to spread out into the community.”

She also said inmates’ families reported some prisoners refuse to be vaccinated because if they develop a reaction to the shot that resembles the symptoms of the coronavirus, they are then transferred to the jail’s quarantine unit.

The state Department of Public Safety says the COVID-19 outbreak at Maui Community Correctional Center is being brought under control, but inmates’ families say prisoners are being threatened to discourage them from being tested. Bryan Berkowitz/Civil Beat/2020

The state Department of Public Safety, meanwhile, reports the number of cases at MCCC peaked at 43 inmates on March 5, and has dropped since then to 12 on Thursday.

Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the department, said in a written statement that the state Department of Health “has not informed PSD of the presence of any new variant of the COVID-19 virus at MCCC. PSD considers the introduction of any COVID-19 variant in our facilities to be a serious concern.”

Tommy Johnson, the department’s deputy director for corrections, noted in a statement earlier this week that MCCC hadn’t seen a new positive case reported in the previous five days, and praised the facility staff for their efforts.

Hofstadter said that disconnect between what the jail administration says about the outbreak and what inmates’ families say underscores the need for an “independent, unbiased body” such as the commission to investigate what is really happening.

Civil Beat reported earlier that at least one inmate and a number of family members were concerned that COVID-positive inmates were being housed in the same cells with inmates who had not tested positive.

Gov. David Ige’s administration has not released funding that the commission needs to hire any staff, but the commission does have the authority to investigate issues at state correctional facilities on its own, Hofstadter said.

“So, you have the power in your hands, commissioners, to save lives here, both in the institution itself and in the Maui community as a whole,” she said.

Commissioner Ted Sakai raised the possibility of designating one or more members of the commission to make inquiries at facilities, but the commission did not take any specific action on that proposal.

Hofstadter said her organization was disappointed in that outcome, because Hale Hawaii had hoped someone would be appointed to investigate pandemic-related issues at MCCC.

Maui County Managing Director Sananda “Sandy” Baz told the commission the county helped arrange vaccinations for 171 inmates at MCCC as of Monday, which was the entire list of inmates who were identified as wanting the shots.

The next round of vaccinations is scheduled for March 22, he said.

Schwartz said in her statement that only about 54% of the MCCC inmates who qualified for vaccinations under Phase 1b opted to receive the first dose of the vaccine offered. The state entered Phase 1c on Monday, which makes more inmates eligible.

“Our health care and safety staff are doing everything they can to encourage inmates to get vaccinated,” Schwartz wrote. The jail had 309 inmates, male and female, as of Monday.

Department of Public Safety Director Max Otani said about 44% of the in-state inmates who are offered the shots agree to be vaccinated, while the vaccination acceptance rate so far for all Hawaii inmates including prisoners at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona is 56%.

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