UPDATE: 8:52 p.m.
The Hawaii Supreme Court has ordered the temporary release of certain pretrial detainees and inmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, where COVID-19 cases continue to spread and cause unrest.
The court issued its decision Sunday in response to a petition filed by the Office of the Public Defender pressing the court to allow as many inmates at OCCC and the state’s seven other correctional facilities to be released as quickly as possible to prevent further infection among the incarcerated and the facility’s employees.
“This court recognizes the impact of COVID-19 on Hawaii’s community correctional centers and facilities and the urgency by which suitable yet balanced action is required,” the order said. “The COVID-19 outbreak at OCCC, where appropriate physical distancing is not possible, has the potential to not only place the inmates at risk of death or serious illness, but also endanger the lives and well-being of staff and service providers who work at OCCC, their families, and members of the community at large. Because of the virulent spread of the virus within close quarters, the COVID-19 outbreak at OCCC also has the potential to tax the limited resources of Hawaii’s community health care providers.
The order, which follows a Friday hearing on the petition, commands the state Department of Public Safety by Wednesday to conditionally release certain OCCC pretrial detainees charged with a petty misdemeanor or a misdemeanor offense. The order, which also applies to certain individuals incarcerated solely due to petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor convictions, comes with some caveats.
It doesn’t apply to those who have been charged with abuse of family or household members, violation of a temporary restraining order, violation of an order for protection or violation of a restraining order or injunction.
Among other stipulations is that inmates who are released must not have COVID-19 or be awaiting a test or exhibiting symptoms. Inmates who have tested positive must take a retest, but all inmates who are released under the order must quarantine for 14-days, socially distance and wear a mask if they are within six feet of anyone. If they get sick, they must report symptoms to the state Department of Health. They must provide contact information to appropriate authorities and are due back in court for an appearance early next year.
Today, DPS officials confirmed that 170 out of 968 OCCC inmates and 34 staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus. The department said all remaining inmates would be tested in the coming days.
On Friday, the court heard arguments on a petition filed by the Office of the Public Defender pressing the court to allow as many inmates at OCCC to be released as quickly as possible to prevent further infection among the incarcerated and the facility’s employees.
The Honolulu prosecutor’s office and state Attorney General Clare Connors opposed the petition.
Oahu Community Correctional Center inmates upset with coronavirus quarantine lockdowns set a small fire in the common area of a housing module today and damaged a toilet and lighting fixture.
Today’s actions follow another fire and an attempted fire on Saturday at the Kalihi jail.
The weekend unrest comes after reports of widespread COVID-19 outbreaks at the facility.
Toni Schwartz, Hawaii Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, confirmed the incidents today and said in a statement that “COVID-19 has created a tremendous amount of strain on our overcrowded facilities.”
As of Sunday, the Department of Public Safety confirmed 170 out of 968 OCCC inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus. While there are more tests to go, the department said all remaining inmates would be tested in the coming days.
DPS also said that as of Sunday, 34 staffers had tested positive
“Quarantine lockdowns, and cramped conditions, combined with the stress of the COVID-19 outbreak at OCCC translates to inmates becoming restless and agitated,” she said.
Today’s fire was extinguished quickly, with both incidents causing only minor injuries. Schwartz said two inmates who damaged a toilet and a lighting fixture are being evaluated for minor injuries sustained as a result of breaking the items. She said a corrections officer also had some minor eye irritation from a discharged fire extinguisher.
“All staff on duty are to be commended for effectively and professionally keeping the situation under control during these trying times,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said 40 inmates were temporarily relocated to an outside recreation area today while the damage was assessed and cleaned up.
Schwartz said Saturday’s incidents did not result in damage or injuries, or evident escalation.
“Lunch was served late at OCCC yesterday and inmates reacted by starting a fire which was quickly extinguished,” she said. “They did attempt to start a second fire but were unsuccessful. Once meals were served, calm quickly resumed.”
Coronavirus has allegedly taken a toll on OCCC’s kitchen, which is made up of staff and inmates.
Schwartz said this weekend’s incidents are under investigation and “inmates found culpable will be criminally and administratively charged.”