Employees at Hawaii’s largest jail say short staffing at the facility has reached a crisis point that is putting both inmates and exhausted corrections officers at risk, with prisoners locked down for prolonged periods and Covid-19 once again spreading through the facility.
There are currently 92 vacant adult correctional officer positions at the Oahu Community Correctional Center out of a total authorized position count of 413. And Department of Public Safety Director Max Otani says many more ACOs are unavailable to work during any given shift because they call in sick or are out on various types of leave.
The staff that remain say adult correctional officers at OCCC are routinely working multiple 16-hour shifts in a week, and are sometimes held over to work 24 hours at a stretch — or even longer in critical posts — when other officers don’t show up.
Longtime OCCC staff members who would talk to Civil Beat only if their names weren’t published blame the top management of the department, saying officials have failed to respond to staff shortages that worsened over the years, and those shortages were aggravated by the pandemic.
“This didn’t happen overnight. This happened over years, and it’s to the point where it’s unsafe, it’s downright dangerous,” said one longtime corrections officer.
The facility is particularly short-handed on weekends, and “if something happens, a major disturbance, we do not have the personnel to handle it,” the staffer said. “It puts the staff in danger, puts the inmates in danger, and puts the public in danger.”
In a written response to questions about staffing at OCCC, the department said that “staffing shortages are not unique to Hawaiʻi jails and prisons. Every state in the nation has been reporting prison staffing shortages for many years.”
“The staffing shortages in all of PSD’s correctional facilities did not suddenly arise,” the department said in its statement. “It has been a long-standing and serious issue for which PSD has expressed concern to the Legislature and the public for years.”
As for the security and safety concerns, “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,” the department said.
“It is challenging, but OCCC is addressing all mandatory post requirements as best it can and working diligently to maintain operations for the safety and security of inmates, staff, and the general public,” the statement said.
OCCC was holding 1,109 men and women inmates as of the end of May.
Staff said the shortage of officers is most severe on weekends. To illustrate the problem, one supervisor cited the example of a weekend day shift where about 75 ACOs should have been on the job, but fewer than 20 actually showed up to work.
The missing staff included more than a dozen officers who called in sick, and others who took family leave, vacation or other types of leave. And the large number of staff vacancies meant there were fewer people to call in to fill out the ranks.
More than two dozen correctional officers from the previous shift had to be held back that day to work overtime to cover the next shift, but the facility still ended up closing more than three dozen guard posts because there was no one to staff them, the supervisor said.
Longtime staffers said management is relying on vast amounts of employee overtime pay to keep the system running, which means corrections officers who agree to work long hours are earning — or are on track to earn — $100,000 or more per year. Regular starting pay for an ACO recruit is $4,346 per month, or about $52,000 per year.
Another staffer alleged that the staff shortages have required that “red” posts that are considered essential posts under the ACO’s union contract are among those that are left vacant at times.
“Every place is short, every place doesn’t have the complement of staff, so in lieu of that, you can’t do your job efficiently, you can’t search the cells efficiently, there’s a whole lot of things you can’t get done in a day,” the officer said.
If that goes on for a prolonged period, the inmates will acquire and hide weapons and other contraband, the officer said.
As for the inmates, the shortage of ACOs means recreation and other activities within the facility are severely restricted. “We have to lock down. We just don’t have the people to fill the modules,” said one staffer.
And restricting the activities of inmates comes with its own set of problems. “When they’re locked down continually, you get the harassment towards the staff, you get the inmates where tempers flare in the rooms, we have more fights, we just have more problems,” the staffer said.
Staffers said assaults among inmates have increased from a few years ago, which means trips to The Queen’s Medical Center to treat injured prisoners also increased.
Lockdowns As Covid Surges
The staffing shortage is triggering lockdowns even as Covid-19 is once again spreading in OCCC, which has been the site of some of the largest clusters of the illness during the pandemic. The department responds to outbreaks by isolating inmates who have been infected to try to slow or stop the spread of the virus inside.
As of Tuesday the department reported 27 infections among the inmates and seven among the staff, and Honolulu lawyer Eric Seitz said continuing staffing shortages are at least partly to blame for the spread of the coronavirus inside OCCC.
Seitz said the staffing limitations have made it virtually impossible for the facility to follow the department’s elaborate Pandemic Response Plan, and that failure has led to more illnesses among staff and inmates.
U.S. District Court Judge Jill Otake ruled last July that the department had failed to follow its response plan, and failed to protect inmates from coronavirus outbreaks that have caused the deaths of at least 10 prisoners. She issued a preliminary injunction ordering the department to follow the plan.
Seitz said his office is preparing to file a series of civil cases this summer related to the pandemic and the department’s failure to control the spread of the virus, and said the staffing shortages will figure in those cases.
The department needed adequate personnel to implement the Pandemic Response Plan, and “I don’t believe they were capable of implementing that, given the fact that they had all kinds of other staffing problems,” Seitz said. “I just don’t think they were capable of doing what they promised, and what they said they were doing.”
Looking ahead, Otani told the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission last month that the department recently graduated a class of about two dozen new ACOs and started a new class on May 16, but “unfortunately, the numbers that are retiring are just as high as what we’re putting in the facilities.”
“We’re making strides and filling vacancies, but then we also have new vacancies that are occurring because of retirement and other issues,” Otani told the commission. The department is holding more training classes than normal, “but it’s going to be a while before we can actually fill all of our positions.”
Otani acknowledged in that meeting there is a high number of vacancies throughout the system, “but it’s not just the vacancies. It’s the workman’s comp and (leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act) in addition to the regular sick leave and vacations that we have to deal with as far as staff shortages.”
The department said in a written response to questions that “the facilities schedule adequate staff to fill assigned posts. When employees call out unexpectedly, at times it affects the facility’s ability to fill certain posts and hold programs.”
“All state employees are entitled to use earned leave,” the department said. “Curbing excessive leave use is a constant battle for any agency that has 24/7 operations. The facility administrative staff continue to work with their employees to find solutions and make sure the facilities have adequate staffing.”
The Hawaii State Auditor’s office shed some new light on that particular issue last week when it released a new report that found the department is using a “shift relief factor” that was developed in 1970 and predates the creation of FMLA leave.
The shift relief factor is used to calculate the number of full-time positions the system needs to keep each open post occupied, and it has “not been updated to account for a number of new laws and collective bargaining agreement terms that have increased the amount of leave available to employees,” according to the auditor.
Otani said in a written reply to the audit that the department intends to update the shift relief factor, and the new SRF “will be much higher.” He added: “A higher SRF means additional new security positions.”
But Otani said the pandemic presents a problem with updating the SRF now because the pandemic imposed unique staffing demands and leave patterns on the system. “Using leave data during a pandemic to assess staffing requirements post-pandemic will result in inaccurate staffing requirements,” Otani wrote.
The department has also resorted to using emergency hires — workers who undergo just two weeks of training instead of the usual 10 weeks of ACO academy training — to staff some prison posts. Emergency hires are employed by the state under contracts that can be renewed in 89-day increments.
But several staff at OCCC said they have seen no emergency hires deployed there. The department confirmed that none of the two dozen emergency hires now working have been assigned to OCCC as yet, “but the facility is actively looking for qualified people who want the temporary work.”
In a statement, the department said “PSD is working as quickly as possible to fill vacancies through increased training cycles coupled with external recruitment campaigns. PSD has also expanded recruitment classes to include day and evening classes, and is currently furthering the streamlining of the recruitment process, including adding temporary staff to expedite the hiring process.”