The Oahu Community Correctional Center is once again the epicenter of Covid-19 cases within state correctional facilities, and some staff at the jail complain the Department of Public Safety has done little since the last major outbreak there to modify its procedures to prevent the new surge now underway.

The state Department of Public Safety announced Wednesday it had 103 active cases at the Kalihi jail. The next-highest case count in the state correctional system was at Maui Community Correctional Center, which had 74 active cases on Wednesday.

In all, more than 2,600 Hawaii inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus during the pandemic, and at least nine of those inmates have died.

Despite the latest surge of Covid-19 through state correctional facilities, data released by Gov. David Ige’s office Wednesday showed employees at the Department of Public Safety are lagging other state departments in getting vaccinated against Covid-19.

Oahu Community Correctional Center OCCC ewa tower. tour 2019
Oahu Community Correctional Center is in the midst of its second major Covid-19 outbreak in two years, and staff say the failure to follow proper quarantine and other procedures is largely to blame. 

The new data shows slightly more than 77% of DPS employees were fully vaccinated as of Aug. 16, compared with an average of 87.6% for other state employees. That data does not include the University of Hawaii system or the state Department of Education.

As of Wednesday 312 staff members at Hawaii prisons and jails had tested positive for the virus during the pandemic, including 38 active cases. Twenty-two of those active staff cases were at OCCC.

The Problems At OCCC

The last time Covid-19 surged at OCCC was in late August 2020, when hundreds of inmates became infected. But corrections officers who recently spoke on condition that they not be identified said the jail has made few changes to its operations in the past year to prevent more infections.

A key problem identified by staff members was that inmates were shuffled in and out of living units and the quarantine module in seemingly disorganized ways that led to infected inmates being released into other parts of the jail.

“Basically they had a quarantine module, but they weren’t tracing or tracking the amount of time or the placements,” including with whom the quarantined inmates had contact, and whether every inmate spent the proper amount of time in quarantine after exposure, one corrections officer explained.

The Department of Public Safety’s Pandemic Response Plan calls for asymptomatic inmates who were exposed to an infected person to stay in quarantine for 14 days. Inmates moving through each “quarantine cohort” are supposed to be tested every three to seven days so that infected inmates can be removed, limiting exposure to others in the cohort.

But the execution of that policy was confused in practice, with the members of the cohort changing during quarantine, the corrections officer said.

“So, me and you are in the room, and they bring a new body in, and you test positive, they take you out, but they leave me and the other guy in, that kind of thing,” the officer said. “And five days later they throw a new body in there, and whatnot.”

The situation is worse, the officer said, “because it’s already spread throughout the whole, entire facility.”

The corrections officer, who is vaccinated, also criticized Ige for imposing the new mandate that staff must be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. The officer argued the state should focus on overhauling the way the jail executed its pandemic plan and procedures.

“That’s not how the thing spread and it came into the facility, because we’re unvaccinated,” the officer said. “It’s because of the policies and procedures they’re not able to follow.”

Judge’s Order Aimed To Improve Things

Similar concerns about OCCC operations were included in a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court last summer over the department’s handling of the pandemic last year and this year.

The lawsuit alleged OCCC and other correctional facilities failed to follow guidance issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for coping with Covid-19 in jails and prisons.

For example, in the lawsuit, OCCC inmate Robert Gibson alleged he was tested for Covid-19 on Aug. 12, 2020 and sent to a housing unit at the jail but wasn’t told he had tested positive until six days later.

Chauncy Hata, another OCCC inmate, alleged he was confined in a cell with another inmate who developed a high fever on Aug. 9, 2020, and was not tested until two days later.

The roommate was not removed from the module until after his test results came back positive, so he “remained housed in the same module where he infected Mr. Hata and other inmates and staff,” according to the lawsuit.

Oahu Community Corrections Center OCCC wide
Despite outbreaks that have infected thousands of inmates and hundreds of staff members, the employees in the state Department of Public Safety have the lowest vaccination rate of any departments that have reported so far. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

When asked if OCCC has overhauled its procedures since the Covid-19 outbreak there last August, Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said the jails and prisons are instructed to follow the department’s Pandemic Response Plan, which has been revised eight times to follow updated guidance from the CDC.

The department cited the response plan in federal court as evidence the department was responding appropriately to the pandemic, but the state has also acknowledged in court filings the corrections staff was not always able to follow the plan.

“Each facility has adapted the plan to meet their individual facility needs and are executing their plans, to the best of their ability, to medically isolate, quarantine and cohort inmates,” Schwartz said in a written statement Wednesday.

“The facility and PSD have a mandate to provide for the care and safe custody of inmates and will do what is necessary to ensure the inmates under our custody are taken care of,” she wrote. “It is challenging but all facilities are working diligently to maintain operations for the safety and security of inmates, staff, and the general public.”

U.S. District Court Judge Jill Otake ruled last month the department has failed to protect Hawaii inmates from coronavirus outbreaks within the prisons and jails, and issued a preliminary injunction ordering the correctional system to follow its own pandemic response plan.

She also declared that the class-action lawsuit accusing the state of violating the inmates’ constitutional rights during the pandemic will likely succeed at trial.

Lawyers for the inmates and the state are in negotiations now to try to settle the case, and are considering a plan to appoint a five-member panel of experts to oversee the correctional system as it carries out the pandemic plan.

Schwartz said in her written statement that the staff at OCCC has been offered the coronavirus vaccine at the jail under a partnership with The Queen’s Health Systems, and the department plans to expand that program to offer shots at other facilities as well.

However, “everyone has free will and the right to make a choice for their own individual health care needs,” she said. “It is possible that they hear the same misinformation that wrongly claims vaccines aren’t safe, have concerns about the side effects, and want to wait and see what kind of experience others are having before they decide.”

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