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Federal Judge Warns Hawai‘i to Follow Safety Rules in Jails, Prisons

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HONOLULU — A judge ruled she won't appoint a special master just yet to make sure Hawaiʻi officials are keeping inmates safe from COVID-19, but said she is troubled by allegations in a lawsuit describing “egregious conditions” at prisons and jails that led to virus outbreaks at five of the state's eight prisons and jails.

In a ruling issued late Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Jill Otake granted class-action status to the lawsuit by inmates alleging state officials mishandled the pandemic and failed to implement its Pandemic Response Plan.

Lawyers for the inmates asked the judge to appoint an expert who could ensure the plan is being followed.

“This does not foreclose the possibility that a special master or another person with a similarly contemplated role may be appointed in the future, if appropriate,” the judge said.

Otake ordered the state to “immediately implement" and follow the plan, focusing on cleaning, social distancing, quarantining and other measures.

Attorneys representing the state have said they addressed COVID-19 safety concerns by adopting the response plan on March 23, 2020, consistent with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State officials didn't immediately comment on the ruling Wednesday.

Otake noted descriptions in the lawsuit including an outbreak at one Oʻahu facility that led to 90% of the inmate population contracting the virus, where dirty clothes from that facility were laundered by inmates and staff at another facility, which resulted in an outbreak there.

Other descriptions she noted include an inmate with lupus who contracted the virus but received little-to-no medical care and was left with serious kidney damage, no social distancing or mask-wearing enforcement, and crowded and sanitary living conditions.

Inmates said in court documents ailing detainees were kept near a bathroom flooded with urine and feces and their requests to use the bathroom were frequently denied, forcing them to urinate in their drinking cups.

“If the conditions described in the declarations submitted by Plaintiffs continue, the risk of harm to all inmates is undeniable," Otake said, adding that she found their statements to be credible.

Otake found it problematic that officials transported symptomatic inmates on an airplane from a facility with an active COVID-19 outbreak who told staff they were ill or whose infections weren't confirmed because of late or no testing to a facility with no active COVID-19 cases that previously experienced an outbreak and then housed those inmates with virus-negative inmates.

“There is almost no clearer an example of complete disregard for the Response Plan and abandonment of precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between DPS facilities and islands,” she said.

Otake also took issue with officials relocating inmates from a crowded area known as the “fishbowl” only after the plaintiffs filed a motion asking for the special master. She called the timing of the actions “suspect.”

She is requiring both sides to attend monthly status conferences starting next week with a magistrate judge. They must file reports a week before each meeting.

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