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Pandemic Hits More Than 1,475 Hawai?i Inmates This Year

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The coronavirus pandemic has reached deep into Hawai?i's criminal justice system -- infecting nearly 1,500 inmates and 170 staff. The latest COVID-19 outbreak at the H?lawa prison alone has grown to 177 inmates and 33 staff—and it was a top concern at the latest meeting of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission.

Community justice advocate Kat Brady tells the oversight commission she’s received calls and emails from concerned family members who have relatives imprisoned at H?lawa.

“Guys on one floor heard another man screaming on the floor above them. ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ The other incarcerated people were trying to help him,” says Brady, “And the ACOs said ‘We’re doing headcounts and we’ll get to him after.’ Well, the person died. So what kind of statement does that make for the people inside?”

State public safety officials confirm 53-year-old H?lawa inmate Kevin Uyeda was found unresponsive in his cell Sunday. He was transported to a nearby hospital where he died.

Newly appointed Public Safety Director Max Otani says the coronavirus has not yet been determined to be the official cause of death. He says the situation at H?lawa has been further exacerbated by the inability to relieve overcrowding.

“I going be upfront with you folk, one of the issues that we have faced was that we were unable to transport inmates to Arizona,” says Otani, “The plan was to transport inmates to Arizona so we would have space for inmates returning. Plus, some cushion to do some social distancing. But that didn’t happen.”

Otani plans to move staff from other facilities on O?ahu to H?lawa to provide relief to staff who have been working long hours after 33 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. The agency is currently monitoring 204 active cases, including five inmates who have been hospitalized.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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