With the state’s largest prison currently battling an outbreak of COVID-19, the union representing more than 300 employees at Halawa Correctional Facility says the state isn’t doing enough to improve hazardous conditions there.
Liz Ho, United Public Workers administrator, said Wednesday that staffing appears to be down by 50%, and correctional officers are working 24-hour and 36-hour shifts to try to make up for the deficit.
“They’re stressed, they’re overwhelmed and they’re scared,” Ho said of the guards. “Every day they go to work afraid to contract COVID-19 and bring it home to their families.”
One guard, she said, sent his wife and son to live with his in-laws.
The Department of Public Safety announced a lockdown and other measures at Halawa last week after three inmates and 10 staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
The prison launched facility-wide isolation and quarantine protocols but the numbers still ballooned to 177 positive inmates and 33 staff members, including nine prisoners who tested positive on Wednesday.
No other prison or jail in Hawaii has a bigger problem with the virus right now.
“The ACOs (adult corrections officers) are afraid. There’s overcrowding. There are agitated inmates. They’re not happy,” Ho said.
After meeting with new Department of Public Safety Director Max Otani on Tuesday, union officials issued a statement saying employees continue to work under hazardous conditions, with “vastly understaffed” work shifts that put staff members at greater risk in dealing with the overcrowded inmate population.
“This situation is unacceptable to us,” the statement said. “We acknowledge that the Department of Public Safety has taken steps to mitigate the outbreak and has provided sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) to staff. But, there is definitely more that needs to be done.”
Asked for a response, Otani said in a statement Wednesday the department is looking at all options to help see Halawa through the outbreak.
“I had a productive discussion with UPW yesterday. They shared our concerns about the situation at Halawa Correctional Facility and gave their support on our plans to help Halawa. One of the ideas UPW gave their blessing on was to ask for volunteers from other facilities to come and temporarily assist with staffing at HC F,” the statement said.
However, Ho said she doesn’t remember giving “a blessing” to the volunteer plan. She said she merely listened to the proposal, which involves recruiting volunteers who have already recovered from COVID-19 and may be immune.
Ho said union officials, among other things, suggested recruiting to fill vacant positions to cover the staffing shortage. They also suggested hazard pay. But in each case, she said, Otani and his lieutenants said those things would take too long to accomplish in addressing the current outbreak.
“We just think more can be done,” Ho said. “We believe there should be more action and more of a sense of urgency at Halawa.”
Meanwhile, the lockdown will continue for at least another week, with protocols that include a suspension of all inmate movement and transfers to and from the facility.
This is the third major outbreak at a Hawaii prison since the pandemic began.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center has had 450 inmates test positive for the virus, while 213 inmates were found to be infected at the Waiawa Community Correctional Center in Waipahu. More than 600 Hawaii inmates have also tested positive at a privately owned prison in Arizona, including the only island inmate to die of the disease.
Surge testing of inmates and staff at facilities statewide is ongoing, the department reported Wednesday.
Although Hawaii ranks among states with relatively low total virus case counts, the state is in the top 12 states per-capita with coronavirus in its prisons, according to The Marshall Project, a journalism nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice issues.
The ACLU of Hawaii is among those that have urged the state to better safeguard its prison population amid the pandemic.
“The State has to do better,” the group posted on social media this week. “The State has a constitutional duty to keep incarcerated people safe. Its failure to do so is putting people — in OCCC, Halawa, Waiawa, Saguaro and other facilities at risk of severe illness or death. The State is also risking the health of the people who work at all these facilities, and the health of their families when they go home every day. And it’s risking the health of every person who is sitting in our jails solely because they cannot afford bail money.”
Meanwhile, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has asked the state to keep the Halawa virus stats separate from the general population numbers, for fear that they will continue to keep the city from progressing in the tier system used in Honolulu’s economic recovery plan.
The current Tier 2, with an average daily case count between 50 and 100, restricts residents from gathering in groups of more than five. Oahu has been stuck in Tier 2 since October.