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COVID-19 Outbreaks at Incarceration Facilities Prompt Class Action Lawsuit

Oʻahu Community Correctional Center
Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Oʻahu Community Correctional Center

Poor conditions within prisons and jails are the target of a new class action lawsuit against the state. The lawsuit alleges that unsafe conditions within incarceration facilities contributed to the spread of the coronavirus among inmates and staff.

Attorneys representing inmates want immediate intervention. They are asking a judge to appoint an expert to assess each state incarceration facility and create a plan to protect inmates.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Hawai'i Community Correctional Facility. It’s the fourth facility that houses inmates from Hawaii to experience a major COVID cluster.

"We’ve seen one institution after another blow up," said Eric Seitz, one of the attorneys on the case. "And the same kinds of problem have occurred because of lack of preparation, the lack of planning, the lack of facilities, and overcrowding."

Toni Schwartz, spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, said in a statement, "The Department of Public Safety has been advised not to comment on possible pending legal matters. The Attorney General’s Office will be filing a response on behalf of PSD in court, as appropriate."

Hawai'i County Mayor Mitch Roth has been involved in the response to the cluster at HCCC.

"On the prevention side... for an example, one of the things that we're looking at is creating a system at the jail where they have better medical treatment, kind of like a MASH unit," Roth said.

Another prevention measure implemented during the pandemic was early release programs, which expedited certain qualified inmates from state facilities in order to mitigate overcrowding.

The mayor was a vocal opponent of early release while he served as the Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney. In May 2020, he authored a letter to retired Judge Daniel Foley, who had been appointed to oversee petitions for expedited release.

"We are very concerned about defendants who are repeat offenders, who after release, committed more crimes in the community," Roth wrote. "Some defendants released did not fit into the original group sought to be released by the public defender's petition."

"This has created a tipping point... where the release of dangerous and repeat offenders is more dangerous than the possibility of an outbreak overwhelming our healthcare system."

When asked if he still holds that position in his role as the mayor of Hawai'i County, Roth said, "This last year, we've seen a lot of things happening with crime going up. We've seen people getting injured, we've seen some pretty horrific cases that have happened."

"As a mayor, I sit in a different role. I see the cluster as something very serious. But I'm looking at a balancing test of what we know now... At this time, it's turning out that it is a lesser of two evils."

In his letter last May, Roth also advocated increasing the design capacity of HCCC. According to the Department of Public Safety's weekly population report, HCCC housed 344 inmates on June 7, 2021. Its design capacity is 206.

"I would encourage Mayor Roth to look at this from a bigger point of view," said Dan Mistak, acting president of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services.

He doesn't think the solution is to build bigger jails and prisons.

"A larger facility doesn't do anything besides put more beds in," Mistak said. "And much like in the field of dreams, if you build it, they will come."

"Hawaii created something called the Correctional Oversight Commission," Mistak said. "So the Oversight Commission actually spent quite a bit of time looking into what the CDC recommended for inside of jails and prisons in order to make sure that the facilities here would be in alignment with the CDC."

"They came up with a number that was far below the number of beds that were under the design capacity or the operating capacity. And that's simply because no jails were created with thinking about a highly infectious disease like COVID."

This story aired on The Conversation on June 9, 2021.

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter. She is also the lead producer of HPR's This Is Our Hawaiʻi podcast.
Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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