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Oversight Commissioner Concerned With Overcrowding as COVID-19 Cases at Hilo Jail Rise to 154

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More than 150 inmates and staff at the Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center have contracted COVID-19 since an outbreak began May 24, 2021.

Overcrowding at a Big Island jail may be cause for concern after more than 150 inmates and staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Mark Patterson, Chairman of the Oversight Commission for Hawaiʻi’s Correctional Systems, says the inmate population at the Hilo jail was already beyond capacity before the pandemic.

The latest population report dated May 31 shows 348 inmates are being held at HCCC facilities designed for a little more than 200 people.

Patterson says he’s confident the Public Safety Department is doing all it can to contain the virus, but he says it all comes down to population.

“They can't effectively manage if their population is at the current number,” says Patterson, “What does effectively managing mean? It means having the cells to quarantine, being able to separate, being able to have 6-foot distance, making sure that when they're coughing it's not going through air conditioning ducts. Just knowing what the jail population is tells me, there are quarantine issues.”

Overcrowding at state correctional facilities has been a concern throughout the pandemic, and it was the impetus for the Oversight Commission issuing its official recommendation in September 2020 on emergency capacities for Hawaiʻi’s jails and prisons.

According to the latest data from the state Department of Public Safety, 137 inmates and 17 staff at the Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center have tested positive for the coronavirus since the outbreak began on May 24.

Public Safety officials reported a disturbance in one of the housing modules of the Hilo jail Friday night.

Preliminary reports indicate inmates broke plexiglass windows and started a small fire that was quickly extinguished. The facility was on lockdown for two hours and a facility emergency response security team was given the approval to use non-lethal means to gain compliance.

“Staff followed their training to quickly restore order and prevent the situation from escalating,” said PSD Director Max Otani.

Damage is still being assessed but no injuries have been reported. The cause of the unrest is under investigation.

HCCC implemented pandemic protocols two weeks ago, which include facility-wide quarantine of all inmate housing and suspending inmate movement within the facility and transports going out of the facility. Ongoing testing is being conducted by HCCC health care staff, with the assistance of the Department of Health (DOH) and the Hawaiʻi National Guard.

County of Hawaiʻi spokesman Cyrus Johnasen says county officials are meeting daily with all agencies involved in containing the COVID-19 outbreak at the Hilo jail.

“Right now, obviously our main concern is making sure our prisoners are okay, that they’re healthy. Making sure that those employees that are affected and their families, that they’re safe and that they’re not bringing it back out into the community,” says Johnasen, “So really just trying to stop community spread and focus our efforts on mitigating and keeping it contained at the prison.”

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