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Union for Hawaiʻi Prison Workers Wants More COVID-19 Support

Department of Public Safety

While an oversight committee will soon begin examining the conditions in Hawaiʻi's prisons that have led to high rates of COVID-19 among inmates, the union representing some correctional facility workers says employees do not have enough support.

The Department of Public Safety has come under fire again as outbreaks of COVID-19 pop up across state correctional facilities.

Next week, a five-member oversight commission will start its investigation into the conditions that have led to over 2,700 inmates contracting COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Nine people have died.

The formation of the panel is part of a settlement agreement entered into last week in a class-action lawsuit brought forth by Hawaiʻi inmates against Public Safety Director Max Otani in U.S. District Court.

Employees at the prisons and jails are also at high risk of exposure to COVID-19. The department says there is currently at least one active case of COVID among staff members in all but one of Hawaiʻi's correctional facilities.

Oʻahu Community Correctional Center had 18 active staff cases and 92 active inmate cases, as of Sept. 8.

The state Human Resources Department said workers who test positive must take personal sick leave. For employees who have to quarantine after exposure, the type of leave taken depends on individual union agreements.

A corrections advocate for United Public Workers, Shawn Colotario said the paid quarantine leave policy, implemented by the department at the beginning of the pandemic, expired at the end of June 2021. Since then, employees have had to take personal leave for all matters relating to COVID-19.

The union represents some of the employees at facilities on Hawaiʻi Island and Oʻahu, including OCCC.

"The department has taken the position that that is a health-related issue and that the employees are to use their own sick leave, even though the COVID outbreaks seem to have resurfaced and on the uptick," he said. "(Workers) are disappointed, you know, they're required to go to work. They're required to risk contracting this disease. They're disappointed that the employer has taken that stance," Colotario said.

The union has reached out to the department to reinstate the policy, but the union says their request was denied.

The Department of Public Safety reported 77.1% of employees were fully vaccinated, according to an Aug. 25 report from Gov. David Ige's office. A spokesperson for the department, Toni Schwartz, did clarify that roughly 10% of employees are on some type of leave. Excluding those employees, the vaccination rate rises to 83%.

Separate from the class-action lawsuit, the State Public Defender’s Office has also filed its third petition with the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court to address overcrowding in prisons and jails.

"I can tell you that some of the members that have been watching the lawsuit welcome the oversight because it tends to bring the facilities into compliance with their own policies," Colotario said. "As you know, Department of Public Safety was accused of not following their own pandemic plan. The onus lies with them and and so in that sense, the members are looking forward to the progress that this oversight committee can accomplish."

The Department of Public Safety previously provided a statement about the Public Defender’s Office petition, saying in part, "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."

Shawn Colotario's interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 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. Contact her at sharrimanpote@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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