COVID-19 Outbreak At O'ahu Jail Prompts Calls For Inmate Releases

Aug 14, 2020

The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court will hear arguments today on a potential second round of inmate releases at an Oʻahu jail, where more than 80 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. The state Public Defenders’ office filed the petition with the high court after hearing news of the spread of the coronavirus in the overcrowded Oʻahu Community Correctional Center.

Nolan Espinda, director of the Department of Public Safety, says mass testing is underway for an estimated 968 inmates at the Oʻahu Community Correctional Center.

“So far, there are a total of 86 positive cases at OCCC. And we’ve identified four different hotspots where 19 different staff work and have been found positive with the COVID virus,” says Espinda. “As mass testing continues, we expect to see more positive cases in the institution.”

Inmates who have tested positive for the virus are being isolated in a separate housing unit. Individuals who have come into close contact with positive cases are also under quarantine. Espinda says the outbreak at OCCC mirrors the surge in cases on the island of Oʻahu.

“Itʻs often said that jails and prisons are microcosms of our society and never was it more true than it was today regarding this pandemic situation,” says Espinda.

Earlier in the pandemic, concerns over a potential COVID-19 outbreak in Hawaiʻi’s overcrowded jails and prisons prompted the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court to intervene. The high court ordered the early release of vulnerable and low-risk detainees from correctional facilities statewide.

The order has since expired, and now, the state Office of the Public Defender wants it reinstated. 

“We’ve reached a point where the virus is spreading throughout the correctional facilities,” says Deputy Public Defender Jacquie Esser. “So we’re at a point where swift and immediate action is necessary for the safety of all people.”

Honolulu Acting Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto said in an emailed statement that his department will object to the release of dangerous individuals who pose a threat to the community. He’s also requesting any released inmates be tested for COVID-19 and that a verified place of residence be secured prior to release.

Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard has also been critical of inmate releases, citing concerns over the risk to public safety. An HPD spokeswoman says the department is opposed to another round of inmate releases. 

Esser argues that the first round of releases was successful and that the current outbreak at OCCC was preventable.

“We’ve had every opportunity for the last few months to continue to safely decarcerate our facilities and deal with an uptick in the fall, which our experts both nationally and locally said was bound to happen,” says Esser.

The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court hearing is set for 11 a.m. and will be streamed live on the Judiciaryʻs YouTube channel.