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Prison oversight commission upset as COVID-19 cases multiply

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Members of the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission on Thursday voiced growing frustration at the lack of cooperation — and urgency — from the Department of Public Safety and other state agencies as they try to meet their mandate to help ease overcrowding and the spread of COVID-19 at prisons and jails.

Magnifying the problem has been the growing number of coronavirus-infected inmates at Oahu Community Correctional Center. The Department of Public Safety late Thursday reported eight more inmates testing positive out of 115 new test results, bumping the overall total of inmates infected to 223. DPS also reported six more OCCC staff members received positive results, moving that total to 42 infected.

All 968-plus OCCC inmates have now been tested at least once, DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said. The results of about 250 inmates are still outstanding.

The state Department of Budget and Finance last month rejected the release of $330,000 to allow the fledgling, all-volunteer commission to hire staff, a decision that several commissioners said they only learned about reading Thursday’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Commissioner Ron Ibarra, a retired state judge, said Act 179 (2019), the state law creating the panel, specifies exactly how much is to be appropriated to the commission and that there is to be an oversight coordinator. The commission is supposed to submit a monthly progress report to stakeholders, but that’s supposed to be among the duties of the oversight coordinator, Ibarra said.

Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige, responded in an email later Thursday to the Star-Advertiser’s question about the Department of Budget and Finance’s decision to deny the commission’s funding.

“With an expected $2.3 billion revenue shortfall, the administration is in the process of evaluating all programmatic funding,” McMillan said.

Commission Chairman Mark Patterson said he’s worried that the absence of a coordinator will raise doubts about the commission’s long-term future.

Commissioner Ted Sakai, a former public safety director, said the panel needs to move quickly to come up with recommended inmate capacities that would ease the potential for COVID-19 infection, with an oversight coordinator or not.

“We’ve been waiting for the coordinator for three months now, and given the funding situation, we may never get the coordinator,” he said.

Commissioner Michael Town, a retired state judge, voiced displeasure that Deputy Public Safety Director Shari Kimoto represented her department, and had to leave after half an hour to attend another meeting.

“I think the director (Nolan Espinda) should be here ready to go,” Town said, suggesting commissioners should look into whether they have the power to subpoena people to appear.

“This is a matter of life and death for our prisoners and their families … and also for our (adult corrections officers),” Town said.

Commissioner Marth Torney said she’s run out of patience with the situation. “We know people are going to get sick, they cannot separate the inmates,” she said. “Unless there is true assistance from the outside to reduce the number of admissions and to speed up releases, we’re going to have a thousand sick people on our hands.”

The commission agreed to continue its meeting on Monday in hopes of getting better attendance from Public Safety and Health officials.

Private attorney Eric Seitz told commissioners that he is preparing to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of inmates and corrections officers to have the court intervene in the matter and appoint a master to oversee OCCC and possibly other Public Safety facilities. “This is a major catastrophe,” he said.

Seitz said he’d rather not file a lawsuit and that he is awaiting answers to questions he’s posed to Attorney General Clare Connors.

“We would like not to draw resources away from addressing the problems into a lawsuit which is inevitably going to happen,” he said. “But we need to get solutions and I don’t think those solutions are going to come from the current cast of characters. And every day that passes, more and more people are going to get sick.”

In related news, the United Public Workers union, which represents the state’s corrections officers, filed a complaint with Public Safety. “Our members face unsafe working conditions each day they enter one of your facilities without adequate safety measures in place to address the dangerous and life-threatening virus infection,” wrote UPW Administrator Liz Ho.

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