At least five inmates have been released from Oahu Community Correctional Center this week to comply with court orders that require the state to reduce the inmate population at the state’s largest jail to curb the spread of infection of COVID-19 inside.
The state Department of Public Safety reported Wednesday that 231 jail inmates and 36 staff members have already tested positive for the virus at OCCC in what is now the largest Hawaii infection cluster of the pandemic.
In an effort to combat further spread of the disease, the state Supreme Court this week ordered the release of all pretrial and sentenced misdemeanor offenders from the jail along with non-violent offenders who are serving less than 18 months in jail as a condition of probation.
Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the corrections system, said other inmates were released on Wednesday, but information about how many were released or who they are would not be available until Thursday.
The list of prisoners who were released earlier in the week included Tawny K. Hollis, who was indicted earlier this year on five felony charges including being an accomplice to felony identity theft, computer fraud, theft and a drug offense; and Janelle Eliapo, who was serving six months in jail as a condition of probation for felony identify theft and theft convictions.
Also released were Chaitanya Pope, who was being held in connection with a felony drug charge; Robert P. Espiritu, who was awaiting sentencing for a felony drug conviction and a misdemeanor conviction for unauthorized entry into a motor vehicle; and Dominic A. Hart, who was sentenced to 90 days in jail after his probation was revoked for a felony theft charge.
Deputy Prosecutor Christopher Van Marter opposed Hart’s release, arguing that he “cannot reasonably be expected to comply with the conditions imposed by Governor David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell to halt the spread of COVID-19 in the community, which include staying at home, social distancing, wearing face coverings, and self-isolation.”
“Thus, the release of defendant could well place the safety of both defendant and the public in jeopardy,” according to a court filing by Van Marter.
Supporters of the early releases warn social distancing is impossible in Hawaii’s overcrowded jails, and the rapid spread of infection through the facility could amount to a death sentence for some prisoners, especially elderly inmates or those with preexisting health conditions.
The Supreme Court orders only allow for the early release of inmates who have tested negative for COVID-19, and do not allow release of prisoners who are awaiting test results or showing symptoms of COVID-19.
The court orders require that inmates who are freed under the early release program self-quarantine for 14 days, and wear a mask when they are within 6 feet of others.
The Supreme Court authorized a similar expedited process in April that allowed prisoners to file requests with the court for release as a way of reducing the inmate population to prevent infections, but shut the process down in June as the number of new coronavirus cases in Hawaii dropped.
An estimated 650 inmates won early release under that controversial early release program last spring, which was opposed by state Attorney General Clare Connors and three county prosecutors.
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