Two containers that are supposed to be used as medical isolation cells at the state’s largest jail are sitting unused more than eight months after they were delivered because prison officials discovered the jail’s aging electrical system cannot accommodate the extra load of the new cells.

The containers are configured into four cells each where inmates can be placed in quarantine to help control the spread of Covid-19 at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, where staff have been struggling to cope with a new wave of infections.

That jail now has 80 active cases of Covid-19 among the inmates, and the crowded conditions there and at other state correctional facilities are being blamed for the latest wave of infections.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said in a written statement there was also another problem with the temporary cells: The containers were not equipped with corrections-grade locking mechanisms, and that hardware is only now being installed.

A worker at one of the two container-type isolation units that were delivered to OCCC in December 2020. Each unit has four cells that can be used for quarantine, but the aging electrical system at the jail cannot handle the additional load. Corrections officials are seeking funding to make electrical upgrades.
A worker at one of the two container-type isolation units that were delivered to OCCC last December. Each unit has four cells that can be used for quarantine, but the aging electrical system at the jail cannot handle the additional load. Corrections officials are seeking funding to make electrical upgrades. Courtesy: Department of Public Safety

The department has ordered a total of 11 portable cells, or containers, which cost $124,000 each, but none of them are being used to house inmates yet, Schwartz said in a written response to questions.

Two of the units were delivered to OCCC in December, and one each was delivered to Maui Community Correctional Center, Hawaii Community Correctional Center and Kauai Community Correctional Center in the last two or three months, according to Schwartz.

Work on electrical and plumbing hookups is underway on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island to provide toilets and air conditioning in the containers, and Schwartz said locks are also being installed at each of the facilities.

Corrections officials acknowledged more than a year ago that they don’t always have enough cells or other living accommodations to properly isolate incoming jail inmates or prisoners who are awaiting test results for Covid-19.

The Department of Public Safety’s Pandemic Response Plan calls for newly admitted inmates to be quarantined for 14 days “to the extent possible,” but space limitations in the crowded jails sometimes prompted staff to shorten quarantine or medical isolation last year.

Shorter stays in quarantine may allow the virus to spread, but lawyers for the state acknowledged in filings last month that the department still cannot always comply with all of the procedures called for in the pandemic response plan.

Staff at OCCC raised concerns last month about the practice of moving inmates around the facility without observing proper quarantine procedures, lapses they say have allowed the virus to spread inside.

Staff members have urged the department to erect tents to provide more space for segregating incoming inmates from the rest of the population, but Schwartz said that proved to be unworkable.

“It was determined that tents cannot be adequately secured and would require a large increase in security personnel in and around the tents,” she said. “The facility would also have to add temporary air conditioning, toilets, sinks and showers which requires additional electrical and water lines.”

OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center Dillingham side.
Efforts to provide containers that are configured into cells where inmates can be isolated stalled in part because the vendor that supplied the containers was inundated with orders. OCCC is coping with another major Covid-19 outbreak, but still cannot use the new cells. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The plan to buy “medical isolation/quarantine housing containers” was to provide facilities with secure housing to medically isolate inmates with COVID-19. However, there were unexpected delays in the manufacturing of the units and shipping them from the mainland, she said.

“It is important to note that several state and county correctional and law enforcement jurisdictions around the country ordered these types of temporary housing units,” Schwartz said in her written responses.

The state bought the units from Container Storage of Hawaii, but the companies that produce the containers were inundated with orders, which caused the “primary delay” of delivery of the units, she said.

There were also delays in obtaining correctional-grade sinks and toilets, showers and special fixtures, Schwartz said.

Finding the money for construction to beef up the electrical infrastructure at the jail is now adding to those delays. “The department intends to utilize the medical isolation/quarantine housing containers as soon as it is safe to do so,” she said.

One employee at the jail who spoke on condition that he not be identified said corrections officers were initially pleased when the new container cells were dropped near the jail’s intake module, and considered it a “great idea.”

But with OCCC now in the midst of its second major Covid-19 outbreak, “they never even got utilized. That’s another waste of state money,” the corrections worker said.

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