The correctional oversight commission observed gates left open and continued problems with the electronic medical records system at the Oahu jail.

An inspection turned up numerous problems at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, including gates left open at a vehicle entrance in an “egregious” violation of security, according to a new state report.

The security lapse at the sally port was flagged as a particular concern in the report by the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission, in part because an inmate died in an escape attempt after fleeing out the sally port three years ago.

The report was based on observations by commission members during a scheduled tour of the jail on Feb. 16. The document also raised concerns about “inhumane conditions” in the jail infirmary, and quarantined inmates who were locked in shipping containers refashioned into cells.

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 container-type isolation units at OCCC. Each unit has four cells that can be used for quarantine, but the Correctional System Oversight Commission worries that no guards are stationed near the containers. (Courtesy: Department of Public Safety)

The commission also flagged the use of modified, air-conditioned shipping containers as quarantine cells for inmates who either test positive for Covid-19, or refuse to be tested when they are admitted to the jail.

No correctional officer was stationed near the shipping containers, and the inmates inside had no way to communicate with anyone outside other than by banging on the wall and yelling in the event of a medical or other emergency, it said.

“The department placed itself at considerable risk by not posting an ACO (adult correctional officer) in the immediate vicinity whenever any of the cells is occupied,” according to the report. It recommended against using the container units unless an officer can be posted outside them.

Michael “Mick” Hoffman, the Department of Public Safety’s acting deputy director for corrections, said jail policies call for an officer to be stationed near the containers with the keys and a radio.

“The polices are there, there should have been somebody out there. I’m not sure what occurred, but it can be a discussion I’ll have later,” Hoffman said. “I’m not sure where the breakdown was on that day, but it will get corrected.”

Oahu Community Correctional Center, January 6, 2021
The Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission cited “inhumane conditions” in the Oahu Community Correctional Center infirmary, and a security lapse because of open gates at the jail. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

The jail suffers from persistent overcrowding, and was holding about 1,080 inmates on Feb. 13, days before the commission visited the jail. OCCC’s operational bed capacity is 954.

According to the commission report, medical staff at the jail guessed that 90% of the new admissions to OCCC are “homeless, mentally ill, or active drug users, or any combination thereof.”

The acting chief of security at the jail described inmates with low bail amounts and serious medical and mental health conditions “who would be better placed in treatment facilities,” the report said.

Commission member Ted Sakai, a former director of the Department of Public Safety, said the security lapse at the sally port outside Module 5 was “very noticeable” because correctional procedure requires that those gates be closed at all times when not in active use.

“We just wanted to point that out before there’s another … an incident,” Sakai said during a special public meeting on Tuesday to discuss the OCCC report.

The report notes that “sally ports are spaces that are most at risk of having a security breach due to the direct access outside the of the facility’s perimeter fences.”

Public Safety Director Tommy Johnson told the commission the gates should be secured whenever inmates are being transported. He said department management will immediately address the issue with the watch commanders and the OCCC chief of security.

A prisoner named Maurice Arrisgado Jr., 47, was shot and killed near Puuhale Road on March 1, 2019, after running past the sally port gate and into the surrounding neighborhood in an escape attempt.

Honolulu lawyer Eric Seitz, who represented Arrisgado’s family after the inmate was killed, called the act of leaving the gates open after vehicles enter or leave the facility “an open invitation.”

“It seems to me that is clear negligence. Clearly, people are going to take advantage of that, and it sets up situations where the use of force will come into play unnecessarily,” Seitz said. “It does behoove them to exercise more care.”

Members of Arrisgado’s family initially planned to sue the state over his death after his death in 2019, and Seitz said he prepared a lawsuit on behalf of the family. However, Arrisgado’s father became ill and died, and the family abandoned the idea of a lawsuit because it was “too painful” to continue, he said.

The report also repeated the commission’s concerns with the failed electronic record keeping system for inmates — which stopped working last June — and declared that conditions in the jail’s overcrowded infirmary are “inhumane.”

The report said the crowded infirmary “needs immediate attention” by Public Safety leadership because inmates are being placed in beds in open common areas because there is no room for them elsewhere. The report also noted the medical facilities do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The department has spent $10 million so far planning a new jail to replace the aging and dilapidated OCCC, and requested another $25 million to continue planning, design and procurement to build a new facility.

However, Gov. Josh Green said earlier this year he wants corrections officials to develop a “better proposal,” and the House Finance Committee did not include planning money for the new jail in its proposed state budget for the next two years.

A 2017 report prepared for the state estimated building a new jail at Halawa would cost $433 million to $673 million, but critics of the project have warned the new jail could end up costing as much as $1 billion in the end.

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