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70 more OCCC inmates and 12 staff members test positive for the coronavirus

The number of confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 at Oahu Community Correctional Center swelled dramatically on Thursday as inmate advocates rushed to petition the Judiciary to release as many inmates as possible as quickly as possible.

Tests conducted Tuesday on an additional 70 OCCC inmates came back positive for COVID-19, the state Department of Public Safety reported Thursday morning. It also reported that seven staff members there had tested positive, but by Thursday afternoon that had been revised upward to 12 staffers.

And with 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 at a press conference.

Meanwhile, the Hawaii Supreme Court today will hear a request from 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 the motion late Wednesday, citing the matter as one of life and death.

The 82 new cases reported by the Department of Public Safety on Thursday brings the total number of positive cases identified as associated with the Kalihi facility to 105 — 86 inmates and 19 staffers.

PSD said the newly reported 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 testing.

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.

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

Among Corrections Division staff outside OCCC, 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.

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

Each of the DPS’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.

Espinda said the safety of its inmates and employees is tantamount, but corrections officers disagree.

One corrections officer, who asked not to be identified, said staff is overworked and being called upon to do too much overtime, that not enough safety equipment is being distributed to either them or the inmates and that inmates are ignoring orders to wear masks.

Several corrections officers on Thursday posted on the popular Facebook group pages “Eh You Get Extra?” and “Whatchu Need?” a request for the public to contribute cleaning supplies for their colleagues and the inmates. Crystal Ann Albinio-Taum, an OCCC sergeant, said a multitude of people responded to the call within hours and she spent part of her afternoon picking up donations of canned disinfectants, cleaning wipes, hand sanitizers and other supplies.

“The state is not moving fast enough to help kill this virus in our facility,” Albinio-Taum posted.

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

DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said no inmates have been hospitalized and that the administration is trying to verify reports that a staffer was hospitalized.

In the petition to be heard today, Deputy Public Defender Susan Arnett noted that her office petitioned the court in March for emergency action seeking a blanket release of inmates in certain categories to alleviate overcrowded conditions. The justices instead agreed to mandate procedures to expedite consideration by the courts of individual release motions.

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 policy decisions made by other segments of the criminal justice system, including the police and prosecutors.

Since that time, “it appears the Department of Public Safety and the general public have become complacent,” said the filing that was made late Wednesday.

“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,” Arnett said.

Acting Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Nadamoto, in a statement, repeated the same concerns he raised the first time his office opposed a mass release. Requests should be considered on a case-by-case basis before a judge, Nadamoto said. All those seeking a release should have verified residence prior to release and undergo a test, he said.

“Public safety is the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney’s top priority, so the department will object to the release of dangerous individuals who pose a threat to the community,” he said.

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