When COVID-19 trapped us inside, many likened our “new normal” to prison: we were confined, isolated and policed.
Think again. Our prisons are severely overcrowded and punitive. COVID cancelled volunteer-run rehabilitative programs, leaving our incarcerated idle and caged. At Oahu Community Correctional Center (OCCC), cells designed for two house three or four, so some sleep on the floor. At the Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCCC), 30 women squeeze into units so small they cannot socially distance.
Imagine sharing a bunk bed with someone suffering from paranoia who sees you as her enemy. Imagine incessant and inescapable yelling, whining and sobbing. Imagine having no cell phone, TV or computer. Imagine not talking to your loved ones because you can’t afford the $1.05-per-minute phone charge. Imagine lacking soap and shampoo because you can’t afford the commissary’s prices. Imagine starchy meals with rarely a fresh fruit or vegetable. Imagine being refused hand sanitizer because of its alcohol content.
Is it any wonder Hawaii’s prisons have the seventh-highest suicide rate in the nation?
On April Fools’ Day, the mayor announced that “prison could actually be the safest place in terms of COVID-19,” and the lieutenant governor claimed that prison could be “as safe as Costco.” We were not fooled. Prisons are neither insular nor sanitary. Even on lockdown, staff come and go, and the overcrowding creates a perfect breeding ground for COVID.
On Aug. 26 the inevitable happened. OCCC had Hawaii’s largest cluster of confirmed infections: 293 COVID cases, including 51 staff, a 26% infection rate. While the rate is dropping, overcrowding and failure to quarantine the infected make resurgence likely. The incarcerated have a 5.5% higher risk of catching COVID than the general public, and are two times as likely to die from COVID than those on the outside.
One would’ve hoped for compassion. Instead, our leaders railed against early release of minor offenders and spent $30 million of federal CARES Act money to help police enforce stay-at-home orders and send even more people to our COVID-infected jail. This over-policing did not make our community safer from crime; instead it made the entire community more at risk from COVID.
When the now-gone state Department of Health director was asked on Aug. 9 to comment on the 261 COVID infections that day, he callously responded that the count was “reasonably good news,” especially “if you subtract those 93 cases” newly found at OCCC. As if the incarcerated are not part of our community. Or people.
Here’s what we can do:
>> Push Gov. David Ige to release funds to empower the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission, created in 2019.
>> Reduce prison population.
>> End cash bail.
>> Expand mental health care and social services inside and outside prison.
>> Urge our elected officials to include incarcerated people in their COVID relief plans; there’s an easy form set up by the ACLU Hawaii (www.acluhi.org).
Hopefully, the new director of the Department of Public Safety is open to reform. They will need all the help they can get. From all of us.
Lily Pu has been a volunteer meditation teacher for two years at the Women’s Community Correctional Center; this viewpoint is her own and may not reflect those of fellow prison volunteers.