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Hawaii corrections oversight panel struggling without staffing

                                Mark Patterson, Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission chairman, is focused on getting support to ease overcrowding and control the outbreak of COVID-19. He’s shown at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility giving a tour.
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Mark Patterson, Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission chairman, is focused on getting support to ease overcrowding and control the outbreak of COVID-19. He’s shown at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility giving a tour.

The Hawaii Supreme Court in June tasked the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission with helping state officials deal with overcrowding and other issues that plague the Oahu Community Correctional Center and the state’s other jails and prisons.

But the lack of a support staff has stymied the five-member, all-volunteer commission from doing its job properly, said Mark Patterson, the commission chairman.

In recent weeks, the commission’s struggles have come under scrutiny for not playing a bigger role in the heated discussion over what to be done to curb COVID-19 in the corrections system, and at OCCC in particular.

The state Department of Public Safety reported Wednesday that 16 additional OCCC inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of positive inmate cases from a mass testing effort that began Aug. 11 to 215, and the overall total to 231 inmates when including 16 positive cases from earlier tests. The first positive case was reported two weeks ago.

When the Hawaii Supreme Court in June halted a program aimed at reducing the inmate population with guidance from Special Master Daniel Foley, it discharged the former appellate judge and tasked the commission with overseeing the effort.

“Further issues regarding inmate populations at correctional facilities may be addressed through alternative means, including collaboration with the Hawai‘i Correctional Systems Oversight Commission,” the Supreme Court said in its June 5 order.

The court noted that among the commission’s duties were to “establish maximum inmate population limits for each correctional facility and formulate policies and procedures to prevent the inmate population from exceeding the capacity of each correctional facility.”

Patterson said he and his fellow commissioners have been talking to Public Safety officials, the governor’s office, the Supreme Court, Foley and others about what can be done to ease the overcrowding at all facilities and the outbreak at OCCC. “We can do as much as we can do without having legs on the ground,” he said.

Patterson said he’s as frustrated as others that it’s taken so long for the panel to get off the ground.

It isn’t for lack of trying, he said. Commissioners, using mostly their own legwork and staffing, have vetted and interviewed candidates and submitted a list of candidates for hiring an oversight coordinator to Gov. David Ige. That hire would help the group immensely, he said.

The panel has asked for funding to be released for the hires but has not yet heard back from state officials, Patterson said. “It’s difficult without staff,” he said.

But it’s a Catch-22. “The first issue with the funding, because we didn’t have the oversight coordinator, we would ask questions and nobody seemed to know the answers,” Patterson said. “I don’t want to say anything negative about the process, but we were not the priority.”

The commission is attached administratively to the Department of Attorney General.

Krishna Jayaram, special assistant to Attorney General Clare Connors, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Tuesday that his department submitted the commission’s request for $330,000 for staffing, travel to neighbor island facilities and other expenses on July 10. But that request was denied by the Department of Budget and Finance on July 20.

Patterson, told of this Wednesday, said that was news to him. “I’m curious if the $330,000 was denied, how do we pay the coordinator?” he said. The commission is slated to meet today via teleconference to discuss staffing, COVID-19 infection at OCCC and the other state-run prisons and jails, facility capacity and other issues.

Patterson said it took state leaders six months to appoint the panel’s members from the time Ige signed the bill establishing it into law last July 1.

With the help of a deputy attorney general, the group held its first meeting in January, Patterson said. It was on its way to hiring an oversight coordinator when the COVID-19 outbreak led to the shutdown of government functions, he said.

“So right about March, when we were about to interview, is when all of the restrictions went into play in terms of the meetings,” Patterson said. “So we stopped the interview process because we couldn’t gather anymore.”

As for the OCCC situation, it’s clear that there’s overcrowding and that it’s impossible to maintain social distancing, he said. But the blame can’t be put squarely on Public Safety, Patterson said.

“Bail reform is important to what’s going on right now,” he said. “We need to start beginning to start talking about how do we stop the flow into the place.” That’s a discussion that involves the police and the courts “to ensure that the people who don’t need to be there don’t have to go there.”

All five commission members have experience with the criminal justice system. Ted Sakai was public safety director for many years, Ronald Ibarra and Michael Town are retired judges, Martha Torney is a longtime public safety administrator and Patterson is administrator for the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility and a one-time warden at the Women’s Community Correctional Center.

The 215 OCCC inmates that have been identified as positive for COVID-19 as a result of mass testing represents 35.5% of the 606 inmates tested since mass testing began on Aug. 11.

Including the 16 inmates who tested positive prior to Aug. 11, there are now 231 incarcerated individuals who have tested positive.

DPS this week revised its total head count upward to 973 (from 968 last week). So 23.7% of the total inmate population has tested positive with 62.3% having undergone testing. Those not yet tested are expected to do so in the coming days.

Additionally, the department reported that two additional members of the OCCC staff have tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the total number of OCCC employees in that category to 41.

Outside of OCCC, DPS reported as testing positive: one inmate and one staff person at Halawa Correctional Facility; one staff person at Waiawa Community Correctional Center, and two employees at the Women’s Correctional Facility in Kailua.

There have been no positive cases of COVID-19 reported among inmates or employees at correctional facilities outside of Oahu.

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