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70 more OCCC inmates, 7 corrections officers test positive for coronavirus; Public Defender’s office petitions for more releases

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An additional 70 more inmates and eight more adult corrections officers at Oahu Community Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19, the state Department of Public Safety reported today.

And with only testing of inmates in only two of the 19 housing modules at the Kalihi jail completed, Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda said he expects there will be other inmates and staff to have positive results.

“As mass testing continues, we expect to see more positive cases in the institution,” Espinda said.

Meawhile, the Hawaii Supreme Court on Friday will hear a request made by the state Office of the Public Defender to reignite efforts to release as many inmates as possible to prevent more people from getting infected. Public Defender James Tabe’s office filed a motion late Wednesday calling for the move, citing the matter as one of life and death.

The 78 new cases reported by PSD today brings the total number of positive cases identified as associated with the Kalihi facility to 101 — 86 inmates and 15 guards.

PSD said the newly reported 70 inmates with positive results came from a group of approximately 110 people who were tested Tuesday. An additional 63 inmates were tested Wednesday and results from those tests are pending, Espinda said.

Among those inmates testing positive, 16 either showed symptoms or were discovered through contact tracing, he said. The newly reported 70 are from the stepped up tracing.

There are currently 968 inmates housed at OCCC, and those not yet tested will be in the coming days, Espinda said. Until then, those not yet tested are being allowed out of their cells regularly but are asked to wear masks and practice social distancing.

New inmates are being sent to automatic quarantine procedures when they arrive, Espinda said.

Each of PSD’s correctional facilities is following pandemic plans geared specifically for each site, he said.

All transports to court from all Oahu facilities have been suspended until Friday, although video hearings will still be accommodated.

OCCC is the only DPS facility with inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Among Corrections Division staff, positive test results have come back for one person at the Halawa Correctional Facility and two others at the Women’s Correctional Facility in Kailua.

The first inmate to test positive for COVID-19 was announced Friday, and before that the first staff with the virus was announced.

The spike in reported positive cases has grown exponentially in recent days, just as those who sought the release of more inmates several months ago had anticipated.

In a petition filed electronically late Wednesday, Deputy Public Defender Susan Arnett noted that her office petitioned the court in March for emergency action seeking to have released a blanket release of inmates in certain categories to alleviate overcrowded conditions.

The court instead appointed retired Appellate Judge Daniel Foley to work with the various parties to addressed the issues raised, and that resulted in procedures to expedite consideration by the courts of individual release motions, Arnett’s filing said.

In all, about 800 inmates have been released since the pandemic began. That number includes not just those released as a result of the court’s actions, but from decisions made by other segments of the criminal justice system including police making fewer arrests and prosecutors delaying charging of individuals.

But by early June, Arnett said, “the court determined that much of the urgent relief requested in the two petitions had been addressed, concluded the consolidated proceedings and recommended further issues regarding inmate populations at correctional facilities may be addressed through alternative means, specifically, the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission.”

Since that time, “it appears the Department of Public Safety and the general public have become complacent,” the filing said. The Office of Public Defender’s “warning that the introduction of COVID-19 into Hawaii’s correctional facilities was ‘inevitable’ was dismissed and ridiculed at a legislative hearing. New case counts have soared and restrictions have been re-imposed.”

She added: “Unlike the situation in early March which dealt with the threat of this deadly pandemic being introduced into our correctional facilities, we are now faced with the reality of COVID-19 being confirmed in at least three facilities on Oahu.”

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