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Public Defender's Office Again Asks Court to Address Prison Overcrowding Amid COVID-19 Outbreaks

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A wave of the COVID-19 delta variant is surging in Hawaiʻi prisons and jails. One Oʻahu facility reported more than 150 positive cases in August alone — officials reported COVID-19 clusters at facilities on Oʻahu, Maui and Kauaʻi last month.

In response to the outbreaks, the State Office of the Public Defender has filed its third petition with the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court to address overcrowding. The court has twice before issued orders prompting the release of some nonviolent offenders.

In a separate federal lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Jill Otake ruled in July she would not appoint a special master just yet to make sure Hawaiʻi officials are keeping inmates safe from COVID-19, but said she was troubled by allegations in a lawsuit describing “egregious conditions” at prisons and jails.

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

Kat Brady of the Community Alliance on Prisons says she's hearing reports that facilities are moving people around, and some people testing positive are not able to get medical care.

There were 903 people at the Oʻahu Community Correctional Center, which has an operational bed capacity of 954 but an initial design capacity of 628, according to an Aug. 16 report from the Department of Public Safety.

"Even the operational capacity is overcrowded, which is why the public defenders have been saying we need to get to design capacity," Brady said. "Doubling and tripling people in cells only increases the spread of this virus. The department has a pandemic response plan and whenever they're questioned, they wave that plan."

As of Tuesday, over 2,600 Hawaiʻi inmates have contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated, as well as more than 350 correctional staff since the pandemic began.

"To me, we're just incarcerating people who are on the lowest end of the economic ladder, and many who are living unsheltered, and they can't pay bail. So they're in jail, and we're spending $219 a day to threaten their health. I don't understand why we're doing that," Brady told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

The Department of Public Safety provided Hawaiʻi Public Radio with the following comment about the Office of the Public Defender’s petition:

"First, we would like to clarify that the Department of Public Safety does not make the determination as to who should be released. The department is awaiting the decision from the Supreme Court. We support all reasonable efforts made to safely reduce the inmate population while keeping the needs for public safety foremost in mind. The extreme overcrowding our facilities have been burdened with for decades, along with the unique challenges posed by the COVID epidemic, equates to facility conditions — including extreme infrastructure limitations, and aging — that push the limits of the staff working there and the inmates incarcerated there.

The department began looking in late February 2020 at ways to prepare for a possible worst-case scenario. Large-scale planning well before COVID-19 became widespread across the state and before the first case was identified in a correctional facility. The PSD healthcare division developed a comprehensive pandemic response plan for all the facilities at that time, based upon current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and approved by the Office of Correctional Health of the American Correctional Association. The facilities are instructed to follow the PSD pandemic response plan, which has been updated several times to stay current with the latest CDC and DOH guidance and recommendations. Each facility has adapted to meet their individual facility needs and is executing their plans to the best of their ability to medically isolate, quarantine, and cohort inmates."

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 1, 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.
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