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Editorial: Public Safety must get its act together

Due to a mass testing effort at the state’s largest jail, the overcrowded Oahu Community Correctional Center is now pinpointed as the site of the largest COVID-19 infection cluster in the state. While the initial round of testing was completed on Aug. 20, follow-up testing is delivering more bumps in case counts.

As of Friday, the Department of Public Safety reported that 256 inmates and 53 staff at the Dillingham facility had tested positive for the coronavirus. Given the reach of the virus — roughly one-fourth of OCCC inmates have tested positive — DPS must gear up for a second round of mass testing, which would bring more clarity to the scope of challenges confronting the jail.

Frustrated by months of fuzzy virus-related directives, the United Public Workers union, which represents corrections officers and staff at OCCC, last week called for immediate removal of the department’s director, Nolan Espinda. In a show of solidarity, Hawaii’s largest public workers’ union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA), also called for “immediate leadership change.”

Improvements are clearly needed. Espinda inherited chronic problems such as understaffing, overcrowding and outdated facilities when he first took the top job in 2015. Last year, he won reconfirmation despite the Senate’s own Public Safety Committee recommending against it, questioning his ability to improve dire conditions and expressing concern about low morale among corrections system employees.

At that time, Espinda pledged to do better. It’s painfully apparent that a turnaround in management style is still desperately needed.

Earlier this month, Espinda said the department’s response to the alarming COVID-19 outbreak is to “work the plan,” a reference to the agency’s Pandemic Response Plan for all facilities. But he also acknowledged that overcrowding had already compelled staff to depart from the plan at times. For instance, intake staff are supposed to put new inmates into 14-day quarantine, but that period had been cut short at times if the new arrival had no symptoms.

That sort of straying from prescribed plan can quickly undermine employee trust — raising fear levels and perhaps even compromising health and safety. To restore confidence among employees as well as surrounding communities contending with infection threats, Espinda must articulate risks and challenges the department is grappling with, and step up efforts to address pressing employee safety concerns.

Noting “months of inaction by the State” to stop the spread of COVID-19 at OCCC, UPW Administrator Liz Ho said in a statement: “We’ve been calling for more PPE (personal protective equipment), more testing, and more realistic options for battling overcrowding. But we are no closer to getting this virus under control.” Espinda, in tandem with other top state administrators, must step up to address shortcomings.

In addition to backing the UPW’s call for Espinda’s ouster, HGEA announced that it is drafting a class-action grievance on behalf of all state employees negatively affected by the state’s handling of the pandemic. Complaints range from failure to provide clear safety protocols, to failure to issue proper notification when a positive test result surfaces at work. Five months into the pandemic, these matters should be clear-cut, not vague.

Hawaii has enacted a law that this year installed an independent oversight watchdog to monitor and push for improvement in the corrections system. Among the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission’s powers: conducting independent investigations and making unannounced inspections in the state’s facilities.

The volunteer commission holds potential to spur positive changes. It should start by taking a hard look at public health conditions at OCCC, and reporting them to the public.

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