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Editorial: Inmates need new quarantine space

Releasing lower-risk inmates from jails and prisons before their sentences are up was a plan aimed at reducing prison overcrowding and the risk of coronavirus contagion.

It was not enough of a safeguard, given the surging community spread of COVID-19 infections. Recent weeks have proven that there’s much more of the virus circulating in familial, social and work groupings.

So there were multiple routes into the closed prison setting, where anything outsiders bring in — including any illnesses among new detainees — will circulate for a long time.

The virus has found its way, big time, into the Oahu Community Correctional Center, contributing to Thursday’s statewide alarming count of 355 new cases, another record. The most current total at OCCC stood at 86 inmates and 19 staff, according to the Department of Public Safety on Thursday afternoon.

Prisons around the country have become incubation zones for the disease, and facilities have confined infected inmates to individual cells in states where there is such capacity.

Here, and particularly in the chronically overcrowded OCCC, options are limited. Nolan Espinda, department director, said those testing positive will be housed in “individual dormitories.” At least five housing units are now on lockdown.

But this is not over. Espinda noted four hot spots within the facility, and those could surely become full-scale fires. Very soon the space shortage will become critical, and off-site accommodation surely will be necessary.

The ongoing crisis will force officials to confront a need to sequester those who test positive for COVID-19 but have no place to do so separately from others. Other places struggling through this pandemic have managed with dedicated quarantine hotels or dormitories, and that could be part of the solution here as well.

Espinda said DPS’ response to the disturbing outbreak is to “work the plan,” a reference to the department’s Pandemic Response Plan for all facilities. But even he acknowledged that overcrowding has already compelled staff to depart from the plan at times. Intake staff are supposed to put new inmates into 14-day quarantine, but that period did get cut short at times if the new arrival had no symptoms.

And the problem of finding quarantine space will affect at least some of the staff, as well, so they don’t infect household members.

The accommodations problem has been addressed, at least in part, where homeless COVID-19 patients are concerned, with a designated quarantine shelter — but not for people who have homes but inadequate private space. Due at least in part to the close quarters in which people live, Hawaii has one of the highest rates of transmission in the country.

Correctional facilities are often described as “petri dishes” for the virus to be transmitted. OCCC is particularly congested and a source of worry.

The jail was expanded more than four decades ago to accommodate 954 but the count has ballooned well past 1,100. After a recent reduction in the population through the early release of low-risk inmates, the current census stands at 968 inmates in 19 housing units, Espinda said.

Inmate advocates have pushed for a continuation of the early-release program. On Wednesday, the Office of the Public Defender filed a request with the Hawaii Supreme Court to order a new phase of the release plan.

However, with the latest surge in cases — and the likelihood that more will test positive — Public Defender James Tabe said his office now favors instead that off-site accommodations be found for inmates struck by COVID-19.

It is time, he argued, for an out-of-the-box alternative. He’s right. Some other quarantine space is needed— and be activated, fast — separate from the miserably overcrowded “box” that is OCCC.

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