Corrections officers at two separate Hawaii facilities told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that they are not being issued face masks, sanitizers or other equipment they need to safely do their jobs at the state’s jails and prisons.
Their description of work conditions confirms the concerns that inmate advocates have been raising for weeks: that little is being done to protect either the inmates or employees at Hawaii’s historically overpopulated jails and prisons from the new coronavirus, making them extremely vulnerable to mass infections that could spread into the larger community.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the correctional system, declined to respond to specific questions about the conditions and instead referred the Star- Advertiser to the agency’s website and its COVID-19 response page and 25-page pandemic response plan.
A veteran adult corrections officer at Kalihi’s Oahu Community Correctional Center said matters have gotten so bad that on Tuesday he and his colleagues were told that DPS wants them to sign a waiver saying the state is not liable if they bring their own masks or other personal protective equipment to use while on the job.
“Everybody’s bringing (their own), from cloth masks to actual, real masks that they’ve bought or gotten from friends,” said the officer, who asked not to be identified because of concerns about retaliation by supervisors. “But nothing’s been distributed by the employer, by the state of Hawaii, for any of its essential employees at OCCC.”
The one exception, he said, are the spit-shield masks given to officers who deal directly with the transport of inmates.
The DPS Pandemic Response Plan, developed by Kansas-based Vitalcore Health Strategies, states that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends individuals exposed to a person with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 to wear face masks or N95 respirators, gowns, gloves and eye protection.
Since the plan was released last month, however, the CDC has issued a new general guideline that all people should be wearing masks when outside their homes.
The facility several weeks ago began taking the temperature of anyone who enters the facility, but not much more, the officer said. Any employees with a fever are sent home for three days‘ administrative leave or until they obtain medical clearance, he said.
Additionally, he said, corrections officers are receiving gloves but not hand sanitizers, and that there is little, if any, effort to practice social distancing with inmates who continue to be housed three or four to a cell.
“The thing with this is if it hits the jail or if it’s already there, it’s going to be bad,” the corrections officer said. “It’s really bad circulation, the jail is understaffed, the jail is overpopulated.”
He predicted that if an adult corrections officer were to test positive for the coronavirus, many colleagues would refuse to show up for work even under threat of losing their jobs.
United Public Workers, which represents corrections officers at state facilities, has so far been ineffective in pushing for improvements, he said, adding that the union is trying to find its own source for masks for its members.
UPW officials did not respond to a message left with the switchboard at their Kalihi offices.
A corrections officer at the Maui Community Correctional Center in Wailuku voiced similar concerns.
Officers there recently began receiving sanitizers but don’t have any masks — at least not any they can use, the officer said.
A DPS COVID-19 FAQs page states, “PSD is working with the Governor’s Office and (Department of Health) to monitor the COVID-19 virus and its potential impacts to our organization.” Decisions related to the agency’s response are dictated by information from the Centers for Disease Control and the DOH.
As of Tuesday two inmates had been tested for COVID-19: one at Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo and the other at OCCC. Both were negative for the virus, according to a report.
New inmate arrivals should be segregated from other inmates until their screening processes are completed, the plan says.
The Office of the Public Defender has petitioned the Hawaii Supreme Court to force the state to release inmates from jails and prisons under certain criteria as a means of lessening the risk of spreading the coronavirus in the densely packed facilities.
At the least, inmate advocates say, the broader CDC guideline that all people should maintain 6 feet of separation from other individuals would warrant as wide a release of inmates as possible. A number of corrections agencies on the mainland have begun doing so, they note.
Despite their concerns for the safety of themselves and the inmates, both of the corrections officers who spoke with the Star- Advertiser said they support the go-slow, case-by-case approach to inmate release that’s being argued by state Attorney General Clare Connors and three of the state’s four county prosecuting attorneys.
Retired Appellate Judge Daniel Foley was given until Thursday to submit to the Supreme Court a preliminary release plan to consider.