The first inmate at a Hawaii jail or prison has tested positive for COVID-19, raising concerns about the safety of inmates crowded together during a spike in cases in the state.
The Department of Public Safety announced Friday that a new inmate housed at the Oahu Community Correctional Center was tested for the virus Tuesday.
The inmate was brought into OCCC on Monday and placed into a 14-day intake quarantine, and on Tuesday was tested after the department learned of a possible exposure to the coronavirus prior to entering the facility. DPS also reported on Friday that four adult correctional officers had reported their positive results sometime during the week. One was from OCCC, another was from Halawa Correctional Facility and two were from Waiawa Correctional Facility.
The state’s nine jails and prisons have a history of overcrowding and have been the subject of de-crowding efforts for years. But with the threat, and now the arrival, of COVID-19 in those populations, worries of inmate safety have grown.
A distraught Kat Brady, coordinator for the nonprofit Community Alliance on Prisons, said she was not surprised by the news that an inmate had tested positive. A woman who was taken to the Federal Detention Center, bailed out, and then later tested positive was a state detainee, “so she had to go through OCCC,” Brady said.
“I’m really, really, really concerned,” Brady said. “They just shipped a whole bunch of people back from Arizona and they didn’t test anybody. They shipped people back from a hot spot and put them in quarantine here in an overcrowded prison. I’m like – what the heck are they doing?”
DPS Director Nolan Espinda said in a statement that the department acted quickly and has worked to maintain “the health and welfare of our staff and the incarcerated population.”
“The facility acted quickly to implement the Department’s COVID-19 pandemic protocol for correctional facilities, in an effort to mitigate any potential spread of the virus,” he said.
The state Public Defender’s office for months had been fighting for the early releases of inmates on probation with jail time and pretrial inmates as well as some felons who were nearing the end of their sentences and were most susceptible to COVID-19.
The Public Defender’s office petitioned to the Hawaii Supreme Court for the early releases, which led to 1,088 motions through expedited court review.
The Public Defender’s office was unavailable for comment.
The Hawaii Paroling Authority, meanwhile, reviewed the cases of hundreds of felons for early parole. Those inmates generally have community status at a correctional center, are in the furlough program and are at a minimum security facility.
The state’s jail and prison population had fallen by 811, including 655 from the expedited cases, from early March through late May.
Figures from DPS have shown that there has been an increase in inmate populations for six of the eight in-state facilities since.
As of Monday, the total state inmate population — excluding those at Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison that houses Hawaii inmates — was 3,274. DPS reported that the inmate population was 3,027 on May 31.
The current inmate population at OCCC, where the inmate with COVID-19 is currently in medical isolation, is 938 — far higher than the facility’s design capacity of 628, and just below its operational capacity of 954.
Joshua Wisch, executive director for ACLU of Hawaii, said that jails and prisons are “petri dishes” for COVID-19 because of the lack of social distancing and believes the efforts to reduce inmate populations should start again.
“The effort to reduce the population was working, but it was stopped too soon,” he said. “That effort needs to be restarted now if we are to have any hope of preventing a widespread outbreak.”
There have been concerns about the early release of inmates, including the rate of recidivism, or the tendency for the inmates to re-offend. Retired Appellate Judge Daniel Foley served as neutral special master in the early-release cases, and in a May 28 report to the Hawaii Supreme Court, he said the recidivism rate was low, although with the caveat that it was too early to be certain.
Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto said on May 26 that many of the inmates who were released had drug problems but were released without any support, which makes re-offending unsurprising. He also said he had started noticing a greater frequency in crimes, which he associated with easing COVID-19 restrictions at the time.
Nadamoto was unavailable for comment on releasing inmates now that one has tested positive for COVID-19, but said in a statement that “it is good to know policies and practices put in place by the Department of Public Safety were effective in quickly identifying this person as COVID-19 positive.”
Karl Rhoads (D-Downtown-Nuuanu-Liliha), chair for the Senate committee on Judiciary, said the combination of recidivism and the introduction of COVID-19 in the inmate population makes for a situation that’s “difficult to judge.”
“It’s just all bad choices at this point. No matter what we do, there’s going to be a bad result,” he said. “You just have to try to pick the least bad result.”
He said that even if the prisons and jails were filled only to design capacity, COVID-19 still would spread “like wildfire” and that even releasing many inmates would not help much.
But he noted that with COVID-19 in prisons and jails, a minor sentence may lead to death.
“You don’t want somebody to go to jail on a misdemeanor or something — you know, you got in a fight with somebody and ended up in jail for three months — and then to die from it,” he said. “We don’t have the death penalty in Hawaii, and you’re not supposed to die from minor crimes.”
Star-Advertiser reporter Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report.